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What exactly do you have to do to be expelled from school?

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Most people probably assume that the leaders of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System can do basic math. After looking at some statistics on crime and violence in our schools this week, I'm no longer convinced.

Here's what has me baffled. During the 2002-2003 school year, there were 11 sexual assaults, 18 sexual offenses, 82 assaults on school personnel, 11 assaults resulting in serious injury, 218 incidents of possession of a weapon, four assaults involving use of a weapon, nine robberies, and 12 incidents of possession of a firearm. All of the above occurred either on school property, at school functions, or on the bus. That's 365 violent incidents.

Now, given those numbers, how many students would a rational person guess were expelled from the CMS system last year? Three hundred? Two hundred? Fifty? Wrong. The answer is nine. And only 47 students were given long-term suspensions, or suspensions that lasted longer than 10 days.

Both in Mecklenburg County and statewide, the bulk of the most violent incidents takes place in our high schools, with middle schools following close behind. Despite this, only two high school students received long-term suspensions last year. (All nine of those expelled were high school students.) In fact, there were more long-term suspensions in our elementary schools (14) than there were in our high schools.

All of this causes me to wonder what exactly a student has to do to be expelled from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Pistol-whip a teacher? Sexually assault someone at knifepoint?

State officials say that most of the offenses listed in the Annual Report on School Violence and Crime can be attributed to students. So if the system's most violent students aren't being expelled by CMS, parents ought to be wondering exactly where they spend their days. Sitting next to their son or daughter in school? Terrorizing other teachers and students?

While state law mandates that kids who bring guns to school be removed from the education system for at least 365 days, it also allows superintendents to pardon them or reduce their time out of school. That's what the system appears to have been doing.

While none of the students who brought guns to school in the recent past have returned to their home school, some have been sent to disciplinary schools while others have been given 45-day Interim Alternative Educational Assignment or allowed to attend discipline programs. Although I asked more than once which schools the students who possessed firearms now attend, and although the school system can legally disclose this information without violating state law as long as students' names weren't disclosed, CMS has yet to provide that information. Given that, there's simply no way for anyone to know where kids who assault students or school personnel, bring guns to school or commit violent acts wind up.

One also has to wonder, if those committing the most violent acts in our schools aren't even getting long-term suspensions, what about those who repeatedly beat and harass kids like Brittnay, the 13-year-old Bradley Francis Middle School Student we've written about? The state violence report only tracks assaults against school personnel, not students.

All you have to do is compare the number of violent incidents to the number of serious punishments and you'll see that the school discipline code and the consequences it mandates in the student handbook are little more than a joke.

The saddest part of this is how it affects our most vulnerable students. The schools in which a third to half of the students say they don't feel safe are also the schools with high percentages of kids on the free and reduced lunch program or from low-income families. Perhaps it's no coincidence that these are also the same schools, in most cases, with the highest teacher turnover rate, or number of teachers leaving the school on an annual basis. In the 2002-2003 school year, the five middle schools where children surveyed expressed the most fear had teacher turnover rates between 31 and 57 percent.

I'm convinced that most of the students in our school system are good kids. They shouldn't have to put up with this, nor should those trying their darndest to teach them. I'd even go so far as to say that the kids who end up in our discipline schools shouldn't have to sit next to students who have brought guns to school, committed sexual assaults or assaults that resulted in serious injury. No teacher should have to teach them. They simply don't belong in our schools.

After a rash of guns started popping up in our schools this fall, School Board Chairman Joe White and other local leaders began to whine about how they can't solve this problem without the community's help, as if attempting to deal with these out-of-control kids is somehow beyond their meager abilities. Believe me, it isn't. The numbers above prove that the school system hasn't even begun to address this problem, much less do something about it.

Sure, the school board could use some input from the community. What it could use is a swift kick in the rear.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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