Maybe the principal didn't say "I REALLY mean it!"
Edwardsville High School in Edwardsville, Ill. has expelled 12 students for a premeditated fight on November 9:
It started with a party invitation — or lack thereof. It ended in a minute-long fight and expulsions from school that could narrow the futures of a dozen young lives.
Between the dust-up in the Edwardsville High School cafeteria on Nov. 9 and a somber School Board meeting at which the expulsions were announced 11 days later, school officials say, they carefully followed a scripted process, including interviews and hearings. The students had an opportunity to bring attorneys, cross-examine, make statements and offer character witnesses.
"It's almost like a mini court proceeding," said Merry Rhoades, the Edwardsville School District's attorney.
In most states, including Illinois and Missouri, the school expulsion process proceeds behind closed doors to protect the privacy of the students. But school officials and lawyers say students are given the opportunity to mount a defense much like in a court of law.
"The school districts try to make it fair, and by law they have to make it fair," said Melanie Keeney, a St. Louis-based attorney who specializes in education law and whose firm represents the Edwardsville district.
But to at least some of the students involved in the fight, the end result doesn't seem fair at all. One parent said she was considering taking the matter to court.
Whitney Blockton is an honors student who was expelled 16 days before a planned early graduation. "I definitely take responsibility for what I did. It was wrong,'' she said. ''Fighting is never the answer. But … I think expulsion was a little too hard. I think they had already made their minds up."
A perceived slight
The feud stemmed from a perceived slight in October, when a handful of girls weren't invited to a party. Tension grew between two groups. School administrators learned of the brewing problem, and, according to Superintendent Ed Hightower, "spent an enormous amount of time with each of the students involved in an attempt to mediate and provide conflict resolution."
On Nov. 3, the administration called the parents of seven students to tell them about the problem and urged them to come to school with their children for a meeting Nov. 6. At that meeting, seven students and some parents signed a pledge saying they would try to avoid the other group and be respectful of them. If they violated the pledge, they were told, they could face police or school discipline.
But on Nov. 8, on the MySpace.com website, "both groups communicated their plans to fight" the following day, Hightower said. And on the morning of Nov. 9, they met in the commons area of the school, and several punches were thrown. There were no weapons involved, no serious injuries, and school officials and police officers broke up the fight in about a minute. Eleven girls and one boy were suspended. Some of the girls were arrested: three were charged with misdemeanors, three others spent the weekend in jail, charged with mob action, a felony.
Last week, at Hightower's recommendation, the School Board voted unanimously to expel all 12 from the district for a year.
Parents speak out
At least two sets of parents say they wish the school had contacted them earlier to let them know about the feud. William Blockton, Whitney's father, said his wife, Nicholee, had called the school to warn administrators that their girls had been threatened. Another parent, Marqueta Lott, said she tried to call the school on Nov. 8 and the morning of Nov. 9 to warn them about the fight. (The school's phone system does not take messages before and after school.)
''I feel like they are getting punished over and over and over,'' said Nicholee Blockton "I agree with the suspension, but everyone had a role." She said she believes the school should have done more than simply "monitor the situation."
Hightower says his team did everything it could to warn students and their parents about the simmering feud and the consequences of a fight.
"We've got 2,500 good kids at Edwardsville High School, and every parent thinks that his or her daughter is the absolute best kid in the world. They should feel that way," Hightower said. "But does that give them a right to go infringing on other peoples' right to an education, even if you're an honors student?"
In Illinois, where 3,322 public school students were expelled last year, the expulsion process is laid out in the state school code. In Missouri the process is decided district by district.
Each school, typically, has a list of expellable offenses in its handbook, and when a student commits one of those offenses, he or she is generally suspended by an administrator. Under the rules in Illinois, an administrator can suspend a student for up to 10 days.
Within those 10 days, the school can enlist the help of a hearing officer who acts as a fact-finder — which Edwardsville does — or the school board can hear the matter directly. If a district uses a hearing officer, that person holds a hearing with the student and parents, plus anyone the family wants to bring into the process — an attorney or character witnesses, for example. The officer, often a school attorney or former administrator, also talks with administrators, teachers and staff members. The officer presents a written report to the board at a special closed meeting, where the students or parents are allowed to make a final statement. Then, in an open meeting, the superintendent makes a recommendation, and the board votes on punishment.
"They can present all the evidence they'd like," said Greg Moats, superintendent of the Belleville High School District. His district expelled 25 students last year, according to state statistics, and has expelled 15 this year. "It's not necessarily a rubber stamp. They ask a lot of questions."
In the Edwardsville case, Hightower said, he sent letters to parents advising them of their rights and telling them that they would be given as much time as they needed to make their case at a hearing on Nov. 16.
At those hearings, Hightower said, the officer tape-recorded the testimony. "He reviews the evidence, the documentation, and he makes an independent assessment and he reports it to the board," Hightower said.
Neither the Blocktons nor the Lotts had attorneys at the hearings, they said. (The families of several other students could not be reached for comment.)
"We had our little hearing, then we had five minutes to make our plea," said William Blockton. "In all honesty, they had made up their minds. I apologized … I just asked them to give her one more chance."
A final decision
For Hightower, the experience was clearly a difficult one, but he said the safety considerations of other students left the district without a choice. "I have 7,500 students in this district and with violence in the schools these days, we take these issues very seriously," he said. "In my 11 years, we've expelled only 21 students. That speaks for itself.
"There's no appeals process within the district," Hightower said. "The board made the final decision."
Rhoades, the school district's attorney, said parents could appeal the decision through the courts. But, she said, school district decisions "typically aren't overturned because there's great weight given to a school administrator's authority in keeping a school safe."
The expelled students now have few choices.
"An expulsion from one public school essentially expels them from all public schools," said Cullen Cullen, the assistant superintendent at the Madison County Regional Office of Education. "They need what's called a 'student in good standing' form to transfer, and they won't have that. They can go to private schools, but there's nothing in the law that compels them to accept them."
The regional office runs a school where the students may be able to make up course work, and they may be able to pursue correspondence courses or wait for summer school.
Whitney Blockton was thinking about going to college and pursing a degree in psychology, with a minor in criminal justice. Now she's unsure how she'll earn her high school diploma.
"She has a battery on her record," her mother said. "It's going to be a struggle for Whitney."
There's some backstory here. On the day the expulsions were decided, Superintendent Ed Hightower remarked, "Generally when a fight occurs, suspensions result. What takes this incident to the next level is the calculation and premeditation involved, as well as the blatant disregard for the efforts of many professionals who attempted to help these students resolve their differences."
These young ladies were willing to get in a brawl over not receiving an invitation to a party. They were given plenty of mediation to try to resolve the dispute, and ample warnings from the school administration regarding what would happen if they escalated the dispute to the physical level. They then exhibited premeditation by planning the fight on MySpace. When they receive the consequences that they were warned about, they claim that they have been unfairly treated. How does the mother think these kids "were punished over and over?" Would it be when the students were counseled over and over to try to avoid the brawl in the first place? What else could the school district have done? What could the parents have done that might have impressed upon these young ladies that they needed to act like young ladies on the verge of adulthood?
The expulsions probably stemmed from the fact that these girls were counselled and mediated and warned, and yet they insisted on DELIBERATELY initiating a melee in the hallways of the school. How many warnings does someone need? After all that, the decision to plan and initiate a fight shows that these girls had no intention of behaving like students, but instead like a wolfpack. Despite all the best efforts of school officials, no matter what the students now say (no doubt at the advice of attorneys), they coolly decided that fighting definitely WAS the answer.
And how was the initial insult commensurate with the resolution? How was it reflective of the initial conflict? Where, in all of this, do they show any understanding of how they disrupted the learning environment, endangered others, and disregarded all attempts to help them behave appropriately? The fighters themselves could have been seriously injured. Bystanders could have been seriously injured. The adults involved in breaking up the fight could have been seriously injured. They plotted the particulars of the fight on a webpage-- newsflash, kids, these can be read by anyone, including adults!-- and then carried this willful decision to fight into the arena-- I mean, the school building.
These were not the actions of the heat of the moment, but premeditated violence. These students have demonstrated that they cannot be trusted not to disrupt the learning environment again, if they should so decide.