Friday, Feb 17, 2006

Posted on Sat, Jan. 28, 2006

Carroll: The expulsion

School disciplinary actions against a 17-year-old Carroll High School student apparently were resolved Thursday in a disappointing conclusion that left more questions than answers and left the free speech rights of Carroll students in question.

In what at first blush seems to be a classic example of Orwellian doublespeak, the Northwest Allen County Schools board approved an agreement that officially rescinded the expulsion of student Jeff Fraser, but for all practical purposes upheld it by banning him from the school and this spring’s commencement. And in a final slam at free speech, both sides in the matter have apparently agreed not to talk about it.

Given all the circumstances, though, the agreement – while not serving the public very well – may have been the best solution for Fraser and his parents. This is, after all, a 17-year-old kid weeks away from graduation who faced the prospect of completing his high school education in the alternative school at the Juvenile Detention Center. Had his parents decided to fight the district in court, the legal battle could well have extended past graduation. Because of the agreement, Fraser can be home-schooled by Carroll teachers and receive a Carroll diploma. Public schools and some private schools will not accept students expelled from other schools; the technical reversal of the expulsion may open some doors for Fraser at other schools.

Fraser’s discipline is somehow connected with “Carroll: The Book,” an extended satiric commentary he wrote that criticizes the school and NACS administration. The book also contains statements about the personal lives of past and present school officials that no doubt deeply offended them. Those statements are obviously made-up caricatures, but some students and staff apparently believed Fraser wanted readers to take them at face value.

Exactly how the book and Fraser’s discipline are connected, though, the public doesn’t know. If Fraser is barred from school purely because of the content of his book, this de facto expulsion is improper – more vile and hurtful than that content was. But Fraser apparently used school computers in connection with his “book,” a misuse of school technology that does indeed warrant discipline. And the public knows nothing about Fraser’s school record, his general classroom demeanor or his parents’ opinions – all of which are key parts of any school’s disciplinary decisions.

The board’s meeting lasted only about 60 seconds, and left teachers, NACS staff members and others interested in the case with little more information than they had going in. Granted, school officials have legal restrictions that prohibit them from discussing the particulars of a specific student’s disciplinary action, but the board would have better served the public by discussing in general terms where it draws the line regarding both use of school computers and in student speech.

School officials, no doubt, wanted to put this matter and the negative attention it was bringing to the schools behind them. Fraser and his parents probably felt the same way.

On its face, the de facto expulsion seems severe. Right or wrong, school board members have left the impression that they were more interested in upholding district officials’ disciplinary action and sending a message of support to people named in the book than addressing the very real free speech and students’ rights issues involved. School officials may have argued that Fraser’s return would be too disruptive, though any disruption would likely have been of short-term consequence that would not have seriously challenged administrators and faculty. They also appear to have adopted a zero-tolerance approach, when giving a 17-year-old another chance may well have been more appropriate, especially considering his public apology that was part of the agreement.

The Fraser case appears to be over, but the questions it raised about students’ rights and zero tolerance remain. With the board unwilling to discuss them this week, they should and probably will be an issue in the spring’s Northwest Allen school board election.