Expulsions rare in Suffolk

Published 10:05 pm Thursday, November 24, 2011

When a student is caught with a weapon on public school property, he is automatically suspended and recommended for expulsion — but that isn’t the end of the story.

In October, a Lakeland High School student was suspended after he was caught with a knife on campus. Even though school administrators recommended the student be expelled, he returned to Lakeland this month.

Schools spokeswomen Bethanne Bradshaw said all violations of the Suffolk Public Schools weapons policy automatically result in suspension with recommendation for expulsion, but the strictest punishment is rarely implemented.

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“Expulsion for a full 180-day school year is rare,” she said. “Every case is considered different.”

In fact, last school year, Suffolk Public Schools had 2,264 serious offenses, but only nine students were expelled, according to a Virginia Department of Education report.

Last year’s expulsions were for disruptive and disorderly conduct; offenses against other persons; technology offenses; alcohol, tobacco and other drug offenses; and property offenses.

Administrators at the school can handle punishment for any offenses that call for a suspension of 10 days or less, but anything more than that must go to a Pupil Personnel Department hearing.

“An administrator from the Pupil Personnel Department holds a hearing on each case within 10 days,” she said.

During the hearing, the student is allowed to defend himself, and all persons involved share their perspectives on the incident, just like in a trial, Bradshaw said.

“There’s a whole structure to it,” she said. “It’s basically due process.”

“The student might explain that he worked at a grocery store the night before, left a box cutter in his bag and didn’t realize he had brought it to school with him,” she said. “The administrator might say, ‘OK, we’ll give you time served.’”

Other incidents don’t have the same result, and the administrator might move forward with the expulsion.

Still, the student and his or her parents have the opportunity to appeal the decision. They can first have the incident heard by a School Board committee and then by the entire School Board.

Bradshaw said although the number of expulsions has risen in the last few years, it still isn’t a major percentage of the entire student population.

“It’s increasing some, but it’s not significant,” she said.

Short of being expelled, students also can be sent to alternative programs, such as Tidewater Regional Alternative Education Program or Turlington Woods School.

“The length of that assignment could range from nine weeks to a semester or more,” Bradshaw said. “Returning to the base school after the assigned time away in an alternative program is also contingent on other measures of academic effort and good behavior as determined necessary in each individual case.”

There are also special hearings if a special education student is suggested for expulsion to find out if the actions were related to his disability.

Guidelines for punishments and appeals are outlined in the Suffolk Public Schools student handbook.