As the saying goes: Let the punishment fit the crime. At Lonoke High School, however, school administrators are discussing a change to that old saw: Let the punishment fit the student.
Since the beginning of the school year, at least three shotguns have been discovered in students’ cars that were parked on campus, resulting in three suspensions. Now Lonoke administrators and the Lonoke School Board are discussing the use of an “assessment tool” to help decide who should be punished for bringing a gun to school and who shouldn’t. It’s a system that could result in a situation where a student deemed “prone to violence” could be harshly punished — even expelled — for an infraction that would allow another student to get off with a lesser punishment.
According to current Lonoke School Board policy, any student found to have a weapon in “an area under his/her control” — specifically including a car parked on school grounds — shall be expelled for a period of not less than one year. In keeping with state law on the subject, though, the policy states that “the Superintendent shall have the discretion, however, to modify such expulsion recommendation for a student on a case-by-case basis.”
Lonoke School District Superintendent Sharron Havens (who, after insisting on written questions from the Arkansas Times, refused to comment on the issue until the board reaches a final decision) apparently exercised her discretion in the three cases, meting out only suspensions. According to her comments to the School Board, as published in the Lonoke Democrat newspaper, it was a decision that soon drew fire from the community.
“I got some criticism that we were too lax,” she reportedly told the board.
Havens said she had subsequently called 13 schools and found that, “[Gun incidents] are considered on a case-by-case basis, and the schools exercised the right to modify expulsion.” Rebutting members of the Lonoke School Board who expressed reservations about going against the policy of zero tolerance, Havens reportedly said, “I don’t think that because some duck hunters forgot their shotguns calls for expulsion.”
This is all beside what the law has to say on the issue. While state law contains an exemption that allows school superintendents to overrule the provision that a student found with a gun on campus should be expelled, it is still a Class D felony to possess a firearm “upon the developed property of the public or private schools, K-12” — though the law adds that it is “a defense to prosecution” that the person with the gun was “en route to or from a hunting area for the purpose of hunting game.” The Lonoke police department didn’t answer repeated calls on whether the school district had reported the discovery of guns on campus for further investigation.
Frank Green is the executive director and co-founder of Keys to Safer Schools, a Bryant non-profit organization that had developed what Havens termed a “violence checklist” used to evaluate students for violence by some of the schools she contacted. Keys to Safer Schools recently sent a representative to speak to the Lonoke School Board. Green, who calls zero-tolerance policies towards school violence “lazy management,” claims that in the hands of a person who has attended a two-day training session, his organization’s “assessment tool” allows school officials to “look at an individual in terms of issues that might be going on in that individual’s life, and what level of threat they may represent to themselves and others.” According to Green, this can allow an administrator to judge which students might follow through on threats of violence, and which are just blowing off steam. Green said his organization’s training and methods have been used all across the United States and in foreign countries like Japan and Finland. He refused to provide the Arkansas Times with a copy of the “assessment instrument,” saying that it could be misconstrued without the required training it takes to put it into practice. Asked about details of the system and how it is employed, Green said that it is based on the careful study of past cases where students resorted to violence, adding that once evaluators have been trained in its use, they don’t even “necessarily have to talk to a student” to make an evaluation.
“The form is just that: it gives form to the substance of gut feelings that a lot of people have relied on for years,” Green said. “Whereas before that was reasonable in a less hostile student environment — where you could say, I don’t think that kid really meant he was going to kill somebody… now we have to look at it more scientifically.”
Joseph Larry is one of seven members of the Lonoke School Board. In accounts in the Lonoke Democrat and in a recent interview with the Arkansas Times, he was firm in his belief that the school’s zero tolerance policy toward guns should remain in place.
“Basically it’s just common sense,” Larry said. “You don’t want guns on campus. There’s no justification for anybody having a gun on campus for anything. To me, it’s just simple.”
While a zero tolerance policy might have its flaws, Larry said, it’s better to have one rule for everyone than “some type of leniency where you allow things like this to happen.” Larry said that while the school board has been discussing all aspects of the issue, they’re leaning toward staying with the current policy toward guns on campus. From now on, he said, it looks like issues involving students with guns will “end up in [the school board’s] hands to make a call on.”
“Discussion is always good,” Larry said. “But basically I think when the dust all settles, everybody will go for a no tolerance policy. From the first time we talked about it, some of the board members’ minds have changed, and I think everybody’s looking at it from that perspective. We haven’t just set down and said: This is the way it’s going to be.”