When Eric Chandler Helms was expelled from Northwestern High School in January, his mother, Tabatha Pruitt, fought to have the expulsion overturned.
School officials had found a pocket knife in the back of Helms’ pickup truck at the school, Pruitt said.
Pruitt said her son, an avid hunter, never intended to hurt anyone. However, district policy states that no weapons are allowed on school property, not even in vehicles on campus.
It took more than a month for the case to get to the Rock Hill school board, which lifted the expulsion, Pruitt said.
“We’re talking a long, crazy process,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
During that time, Pruitt said she could not get her son into another school.
“He was getting absolutely no education,” she said.
Helms is now back in school, but decided to attend in a different county, Pruitt said.
Helms’ case, which the family made public, is one of several in which expelled students in Rock Hill schools have been cut off from education for nearly two months while officials decide whether to uphold an expulsion, said School Board Chairman Jim Vining.
“That’s not acceptable to the board,” he said. “Most of kids that get in trouble don’t need to miss any school and some of the hearings we’ve heard, kids have been out a long time even before they (meet with) a hearing officer.”
Suspensions and expulsions are often associated with higher dropout rates, poor academic performance and future suspensions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a U.S. Department of Education entity that analyzes education data.
Vining said students who have been out for weeks, or even months, must attend an alternative program.
Board member Helana Miller said her concern is the time it takes to make a decision.
“We’re basically punishing children that have not gotten a firm decision yet,” she said. “Of course the safety of all children is important, but we also need to look at the fact we are here to educate kids ... and in (some) cases we’ve gotten in front us, those kids have spent a lot of time out of school. We are in the business of educating kids, not removing education.”
The Rock Hill school board made a policy change last year that inadvertently led to long periods out of the classroom for expelled students.
The school board voted in October that hearing officers could not approve sending students to the alternative education program, Vining said. However, hearing officers, third-party, non-district employees hired to hear expulsion cases, could continue to decide whether expulsions would be upheld.
“If (the student) is capable of going to the alternative school, we should send them to the alternative school, not a hearing officer,” Vining said. “It’s hard for me to believe a nondistrict employee...knows more about our students than we do.”
District leaders believed the change meant cases where students could go to the alternative school would have to come before the school board, a process that can take weeks, Pew said.
Vining said that was not the intent.
The school board has since clarified the issue, stating that the district superintendent, or a designee, has the authority to recommend a student for the alternative program immediately after a hearing officer upholds an expulsion.
“As far as the board is concerned, the administration has always had the ability to do that,” Vining said.
On May 8, the board will discuss a possible change to the expulsion policy, reflecting that the superintendent, or a designee, can assign expelled students to the alternative education program. The policy change would need to pass two readings before it is adopted.
“It is possible that (students) may miss only five days of school between the decision to expel and application to the alternative program,” said Mychal Frost, spokesperson for the district.
With the policy change, students accepted to the alternative program will no longer spend long periods outside the classroom, Pew said.
“Every board member, district administrator and principal wants to make sure we’re providing education for our students,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure we do that in the best possible way for that child, as well as all kids in our school district.”
Also, a student can appeal the expulsion regardless of whether he, or she, is accepted to an alternative program, Pew said.
That process can take weeks as it includes time built-in for legal reasons, such as the number of days the hearing officer is afforded to make a decision and the time given for appeals, Pew said. If students are incarcerated because of their actions that also adds time to the process.
Punishment fits the crime?
Another issue is the number of cases ending in expulsion, Vining said.
“Several board members have concerns that the punishment is not fitting the crime,” he said. “As a district, we need to review the crime and punishment situation…to make sure we are in synch with the community.”
When a student is disruptive to the learning environment, Vining said the public, teachers and staff “want them out of school.”
“They’re not very interested in giving them a second chance,” he said.
Vining said students who are out of school are more likely to get in trouble.
“Just the stigma of expulsion on a student’s record is pretty damning,” Vining said. “Once they get behind, they are more likely to drop out and more likely to go to prison.”
Just the stigma of expulsion on a student’s record is pretty damning. Once they get behind, they are more likely to drop out and more likely to go to prison.
Jim Vining, Rock Hill school board chairman
Vining said the board will need to discuss whether they are doing the right things, and keeping up with what is happening around the country.
“The South leads the nation in expulsions and basically kicking people out of school,” Vining said. “The board is interested in making sure we’re doing all we can to minimize using removal from education as a punishment.”