Mother says high school student exclusion policy is overly harsh

Dorian Johnson, shown shooting on Vineyard goalie Mike Sylvia during a scrimmage in December, 2011, is no longer on the team and may not be able to return to school until September. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School student handbook clearly spells out the policy for violations of the school drug policy. Rebecca Townes admits that her son, a high school sophomore and until last month a member of the hockey team, made a mistake when he used marijuana on a school trip. She says she recognizes that he must be punished.

But, she objects to the severity and ultimate wisdom of high school principal Stephen Nixon’s decision to remove her 15-year-old, Dorian Johnson, from school for six months. He is not eligible to re-enter the high school until Sept. 5, 2013. Ms. Townes has appealed the decision to superintendent of schools James Weiss.

The principal’s action comes against the backdrop of considerable public discussion of the school’s inaction concerning a student arrested on felony charges for breaking into a house while the occupants slept. That student has been allowed to remain in school and on the basketball team, and any subsequent punishment by school authorities will await the court’s adjudication of the complaints, education officials say.

The six-month exclusion Mr. Nixon ordered exceeds the three-month limit on such punishments provided for in a new state education law that will take effect next year.

Ms. Townes, a single mother with two children, lives in Edgartown and runs a house cleaning business. She said her son was on an off-Island trip with the hockey team during the Christmas break, when he admitted to smoking marijuana.

“I know that my son was wrong: he did something that he deserves to be punished for, and I would never want him to avoid the consequences,” she said in a telephone conversation with The Times. “I just think that the school suspension policy, by removing a child’s education for such drastic periods of time, doesn’t benefit anyone. ”

Ms. Townes said the results of the school policy are “devastating.”

Policy is clear

The MVRHS student handbook provides specific levels of discipline depending on the category of offense. These include suspension-in-school, in which the student spends the day in a separate, supervised room; suspension out-of-school, where a student is removed from the school into the supervision of a parent for up to 10 days; exclusion from school, a long-term removal of one to two semesters, depending upon the judgment of the principal; and expulsion from school, which is permanent removal from the school.

According to the state Department of Education, in 2011-12 the average out-of-school suspension rate for MVRHS was 10.3 per 100 students. The state average was 5.4.

The handbook sets out a code of conduct with five levels of offenses and possible penalties. Level five offenses, the most serious, include terrorist threats, possession or distribution of drugs, physical assault of a staff member, and charges of a felony that, in the opinion of the principal, may disrupt the educational process. Penalties include exclusion and expulsion.

The handbook sets out four categories of substance abuse and the school’s response: possession of paraphernalia, under the influence, possession of drugs, and distribution.

Suspension up to 10 days and parental notification is required for possession of tobacco or alcohol and being under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance. Possession of a controlled substance (up to expulsion) and distribution (expulsion) of a controlled substance call for parental and police notification.

Poor choice

“My son made a very, very poor choice to smoke marijuana on a school hockey trip,” Ms. Townes said when asked to describe the events that led her to the principal’s office.

It was over Christmas break in a hotel. Coach Matt Mincone, a West Tisbury police officer, smelled marijuana outside a room. Ms. Townes said her son admitted to the coach that he was the one who had smoked marijuana.

In keeping with school policy, Coach Mincone immediately notified Ms. Townes, who was staying in the hotel. Dorian was not allowed to play in the tournament, and school authorities were notified.

“He didn’t try to cover it up, he didn’t try to hide it,” Ms. Townes said. “As messed up as this whole situation is, I’m glad he admitted to it. He didn’t try to lie his way out of it, because that’s something I never want him to do.”

It was not the first time Dorian had run afoul of the rules. His freshman year, he was suspended one week for fighting, Ms. Townes said.

In the aftermath of the hockey trip, Dorian was suspended for 10 days. A hearing was held on January 14, at which all parties commented.

Ms. Townes said she learned of the principal’s decision to exclude her son in a telephone call that was followed by a registered letter. “On the phone, the principal said to me that basically he’s no longer their problem, he’s not their issue,” she said. “I could hire a tutor at my own expense. I could take him off Island to an off-Island school if they’ll take him, but he is no longer the responsibility of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.”

In his letter, dated January 16, Mr. Nixon wrote, “As a result of Dorian’s hearing on Monday, January 14, 2013, and reviewing all of the evidence, I have decided that there is enough to warrant an exclusion from school, based on a violation of our Substance Abuse Policy.”

Mr. Nixon said Dorian may apply for re-admittance to the high school as of August 23, this year. “If the application for re-admittance is successful, Dorian may re-enter the high school on Thursday, September 5, 2013,” he said.

He said Ms. Townes could contact the school guidance department about how her son could access courses online to maintain his credit load and advised her of her right to appeal to Mr. Weiss within 10 days.

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Nixon wrote, “these serious events can be disruptive to a child, but we hope your son uses this time productively and will be able to rejoin us once again and have a thoroughly successful high school career.”

School policy on expulsion or exclusion provides only one route of appeal, which is to the superintendent. “The superintendent’s decision is final in these cases,” the handbook states.

Ms. Townes filed an appeal in writing to Mr. Weiss the same day she received the news that her son was to be excluded from the high school.

Under most circumstances, the superintendent would meet with the parent within three days of a filed appeal. However, scheduled hand surgery left the superintendent unavailable to meet with Ms. Townes until today, Thursday.

Lesson learned

Ms. Townes said there is no question her son is wrong. “I would never try to cover that up or hide that. We have fessed up to it, and we are doing everything we can to alleviate that problem from ever occurring again,” she said.

She said her son is seeing a substance abuse counselor and that he is subject to drug testing. She is researching online options and tutors and hoping for the best.

Ms. Townes said her son is not alone. She knows of several students she said who have been subject to similar lengthy exclusions.

Apart from her immediate problems, she said she believes the policy is flawed. “I think most times, when there is a substance involved, there is an underlying reason. And I think to punish the kids — take their education away for six months, isolate them from all their friends, isolate them from their education — rather than to find ways to best help the kid to get back on track, it makes it so much harder.”

Ms. Townes is critical of the high school’s decision to no longer invite police to bring in a drug-sniffing dog. She said it sends a mixed message to students and is essentially a way to avoid confronting the problem of the drugs in the school.

“Bring the dogs back in,” she said. “Let them walk through and let them see that they don’t make it through the doors without stopping at almost every locker because its a huge issue.”

Ms. Townes also has a daughter who is in college. She said it has been a stressful time.

“But that’s what being a mom is about,” she said. “You take the good with the bad and you do what you can with it.”

Long tradition

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Nixon said he could not comment on the case of Dorian Johnson. Mr. Nixon drew a careful distinction between exclusion, removal for a set period of time, and expulsion, removal on a permanent basis and the more standard mainland punishment for drugs and weapons.

“Traditionally, what we’ve done here for decades, is we’ve excluded, which is really a long-term suspension, where normally the response would be an expulsion,” he said. “But because we’re an Island, there is obviously a limitation on where kids could go to school.”

Mr. Nixon said that unlike the mainland, students do not have the option to try and enroll in a neighboring school. He said only in the most egregious cases does the school pursue expulsion.

“What we’ve done historically for drug cases is an exclusion,” he said, “which is a semester, after which the student may then reapply again to the school, whereas with an expulsion, the student would not have the option to reapply.”

He said the school averages about three exclusions per year. Each case is different, Mr. Nixon said. It begins with a mandated hearing. “I go through all the evidence. I go through the input of all the people that were involved. I go into what the student has to say, and I make my decision.”

Once a student is excluded, he or she may not participate in any school activities. Asked what is gained when the school excludes a student, Mr. Nixon said that the hope is that the student will use the time to deal with those issues that are affecting his or her behavior and seek counseling or therapy.

A new law set to go into effect next year will change both the length of time a student can be separated from school and the educational resources that districts must provide any student. Mr. Nixon was asked why, if state lawmakers and education leaders had determined that three months should be the maximum, he would not implement the new guideline now rather than wait until the new law took effect.

“We are always looking at what we do and how we can improve those things,” Mr. Nixon said. “I am not saying we are or we are not, but those are definitely things that we are looking into.”

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, Mr. Weiss said he could not discuss the specifics surrounding Dorian Johnson’s exclusion because he had not yet heard the appeal. He said he looks at each case individually and considers all factors before he makes a decision.

“I will make a determination as to what I feel is appropriate and go forward from there,” he said

Once a student is excluded, the school system is now under no obligation to provide educational resources and support, unless the student is a candidate for special education, Mr. Weiss said. Parents of a child who has run afoul of the rules are on their own.

Mr. Weiss said the punishment was originally established to provide significant consequences for a significant act. Asked why the school could not begin to immediately follow the new three-month maximum expulsion guidelines, Mr. Weiss said, “That is one part of a much larger piece of legislation, and I think from the high school’s point of view they are developing a plan to put everything in place as part of one package, not bits and pieces as it suits people.”

Law will change

A change in state law that takes effect July 1, 2014, will limit the ability of school systems to exclude students for lengthy periods with no scholastic support.

A memo from Department of Education (DOE) commissioner Mitchell D. Chester, issued Nov. 28, 2012, described the highlights of “Chapter 222 of the Acts of 2012, An Act Relative to Student Access to Educational Services and Exclusion from School.”

“The most significant of which,” Mr. Chester said, “are the provisions ensuring that students who are suspended or expelled from school continue to have an opportunity to make academic progress through educational services provided by their district or charter school.”

In published comments soon after Gov. Deval Patrick signed the new law on August 12, Mr. Chester said the new law helps to ensure a student’s right to an education. ”We shouldn’t be washing our hands of school-aged youth by expelling them,” the commissioner said.

According to the DOE memorandum, the new law adds procedural and reporting requirements for student suspensions and expulsions. It also makes substantive changes, most notably to require school districts and charter schools to ensure that students who have been excluded from school for disciplinary reasons have the opportunity to make academic progress during the period of their exclusion.

The law directs school decision makers at student disciplinary meetings or hearings to: exercise discretion in deciding consequences for the student; consider ways to re-engage the student in the learning process; and avoid using expulsion as a consequence until other remedies and consequences have been tried.

It also limits the length of suspensions or expulsions to 90 school days.

And it requires principals and headmasters “to create a ‘school-wide education service plan’ for all students who are suspended or expelled for more than 10 consecutive school days, whether in or out of school, so that students have an opportunity to make academic progress. Education service plans may include, but are not limited to, tutoring, alternative placement, Saturday school, and online or distance learning.”

Felony distinction

High school policy makes a distinction between violations of the drug policy and criminal arraignments.

Because Dorian Johnson admitted to smoking marijuana, he was suspended and then excluded from school for six months. Under state law, possession of a small quantity of marijuana is punishable by a fine.

On December 17, Deshawn James, 18, a member of the varsity basketball team, was arraigned in Edgartown District Court on three counts of burglary and larceny, following an investigation by Oak Bluffs Police into multiple thefts of cash from the same house on three different occasions. Mr. James has continued to play on the team.

Felony charges do not affect a student’s ability to participate in team sports, school officials explained at the January monthly meeting of the high school district school committee.

That exemption does not apply to alcohol, drug use, or smoking, activities that would result in an immediate loss of eligibility, and in Dorian Johnson’s case, expulsion.

In previous comments, Mr. Weiss said the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association has a very specific policy that deals with drugs and alcohol, and the website and the high school student handbook reflects that policy.

In an earlier telephone conversation and email exchange, Mr. Nixon said that state law does not allow him to expel a student charged with a felony, until convicted.