Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Parents say school district expulsion policy is unfair

Abuse of nonprescription medicine is a common reason for being expelled

Express Staff Writer

Russell Lepley is one of a small group of protesters that picket the Blaine County School District office in Hailey on Monday mornings because of the district?s expulsion practices. Lepley is the father of a 14-year-old Wood River High School freshman who was expelled for one year for fighting. Photo by Willy Cook

A small group of protesters continues to picket many Monday mornings in front of the Blaine County School District office in Hailey. Some are parents, a few are students and others are mental health or adolescent counselors.

School board expulsion hearings are held in private sessions by the district board of trustees and the results of their deliberations, except for very general information, are secret. A few parents of expelled students, however, were willing to talk to the Idaho Mountain Express about why their children were expelled and the effects the expulsions have had on their kids.

365 days for fighting

A 14-year-old Wood River High School freshman was expelled in December for fighting. It wasn't his first offense. He was already on school probation for an overdose of the cough and cold medicine Coricidin that he took as an eighth grader.

His mother, Brandie Lepley of Hailey, said it was almost a friendly fight, sort of a "fight club thing." Her son and another boy agreed to fight and shook hands when it was finished. Several other boys were involved. They and the other combatants were all temporarily suspended and placed on school probation. But Lepley's son was expelled for one full year.

"That was his first fight," said Lepley. "It was kind of like to see just who was tougher."

Lepley said she doesn't condone the fighting, but that her son wouldn't have been expelled if not for the earlier drug infraction. And the irony of the drug infraction is that she and her husband Russell were the ones who brought their son's drug use to the attention of the district.

They did that in January 2007 after they had to rush their son to St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center after he took a large quantity of Coricidin, which in very high doses can have hallucinatory effects similar to those caused by LSD.

Since many retailers no longer sell Coricidin over the counter, Lepley said she was concerned about where her son got the drug.

"The only reason he got caught is because I made the mistake of notifying the school district," she said. "I got the name of the girl who gave him the cold medication and I made the mistake of going through the school to contact her parents."

Lepley said her son went through a 90-day drug rehabilitation program and is now drug free. But he was still on school probation when he got caught fighting.

In spite of being expelled, Lepley said, her son is trying hard to put his life together and to stay up with his schoolwork.

He works 15-20 hours a week in volunteer community work, takes school courses online, takes guitar lessons and works out regularly at a local gym.

"He just had a bad year," Lepley said.

Three strikes and you're out

Hailey resident Linnea Polichetti's daughter, a 15-year-old Wood River High School sophomore, was expelled for a full year after failing a drug test in January. It wasn't her first offense. She was caught earlier using the cold and cough medicine Mucinex, another nonprescription drug that can cause hallucinations if taken in large quantities. She had also been in trouble previously for possession of tobacco on school grounds.

"I do not support bad behavior or illegal behavior in school," said Polichetti. "But I do support not taking a child and making it almost impossible for them to succeed.

"Now this kid is depressed," Polichetti said. "She keeps coming up with clean tests—she just had the one bad one. I'm not happy about that, but it's just like an adult giving up alcohol or smoking. You go for a while and then you slip. It's just a normal lapse that they see as part of the recovery.

"It's very confusing. One of the things I do resent is that this is one kid who had the knack of getting caught," she said. "It's no way reflective of the number of kids who do it over there."

Polichetti said her daughter is allowed to take online classes at the district's resource center at the Community Campus in Hailey, but is not allowed to be there when other students are in the area. The fact that she's not otherwise allowed on school property means that Polichetti's daughter can't be involved in many Blaine County Recreation District activities, College of Southern Idaho courses or other activities held at the Community Campus.

"There's just a whole lot of organizations that rent space from the school district and she can't participate with any of them," Polichetti said.

"It affects her social development. It takes away any opportunity to get in a more positive peer group. So she ends up in a peer group that's in the same boat as her and that's not necessarily the best peer group.

"I am resentful of that," Polichetti said. "If you treat a kid like a failure, then they're going to fail."

Expulsion facts

The Blaine County School District board of trustees has expelled six students this school year and the board expelled 10 students in each of the two previous years. The most common reasons are illegal drug or alcohol use, fighting or violence, or possession of weapons. About 70 percent of the expulsions are for drugs or alcohol. Abuse of nonprescription cold and cough medications is becoming an increasingly common reason for expelling students.

No comment?

The Idaho Mountain Express attempted to contact all five members of the Blaine County School District board of trustees to give them an opportunity to respond to criticism about the district's expulsion policy. Only one, board Chairwoman Alexandra Sundali, returned a telephone call. Here's what Sundali had to say: "We look at each individual student separately. We don't like expulsions. It's not our favorite part of the job. We take expulsions very seriously and sometimes they are necessary." Sundali declined to comment further.

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