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Here's What It Takes

To get a violent student removed

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The school system's attempts to explain why a student who had committed a sex crime at school was allowed to return are growing more bizarre by the day. A confidential memo from Superintendent James Pughsley to the school board two weeks ago only added to the confusion.

Apparently, the police and prosecutors took the sexual assault that occurred in a North Mecklenburg High School bathroom in 2003 a lot more seriously than the school system did. They arrested an 18-year-old student in the case. After bargaining with prosecutors, he was convicted of felony kidnapping, and forced by law to register on North Carolina's sex offender registry, a list that helps authorities keep track of offenders who commit serious sex crimes.

Despite this, the student was later allowed to enroll at West Mecklenburg High School. According to Pughsley's memo, the school system did punish him, but only for sexual harassment. After doing a stint in an alternative school and completing the system's "Right Choices Summer Program," he was allowed to re-enroll.

Since April, when teacher Gwen McGowens began writing letters about this to system administrators including Pughsley, outraged teachers at West Meck have been fighting to have the student removed because they fear he'll hurt students or teachers. Despite this, the first page of Pughsley's memo claims that he and other staff "had not been apprised" of the situation until Creative Loafing wrote about it this summer. But in a strange contradiction, Pughsley's memo goes on to say that he directed Regional Superintendent of High Schools Ann Clark to meet with McGowens about the issue in May. (Note to Pughsley: It might help if you get someone to proofread this stuff before you send it out.)

The memo goes on to explain that the school system doesn't have the authority to expel a student for being listed on the sex offender registry or committing a felony -- unless there is clear and convincing evidence that he's a continued threat to the safety of others. By law, only the principal or superintendent can make the determination that a student is a continued threat and should be expelled. The memo didn't directly address the fact that this kid committed the crime for which he earned sex offender status at school. Surely someone can be expelled for sexual assault in a school bathroom. If not, why not?

One thing is clear here: the ball was in Pughsley's court, and he dropped it. Even if Pughsley somehow forgot that he ordered Clark to talk to McGowens in May, the first CL column on this ran in July. The kid was back in school in August. That leads to two possible explanations: either Pughsley and system administrators didn't consider this kid a continued threat to others, or they're incompetent.

It wasn't until after a second column in August that the system finally moved to do something about the situation. They called West Mecklenburg High School teacher Carl Hamm downtown for interrogation by school administrators to determine whether he or other teachers might have disclosed confidential information to me about this kid.

Well, that's one side of the story, anyway. In the memo, Pughsley claims CMS administrators spent a significant amount of time at the meeting obtaining information about Hamm's concerns. Of course, had CMS given a rip about teachers' concerns six months ago, you wouldn't be reading about this here.

Unfortunately, this isn't exactly an isolated incident. The school crime numbers from the 2002-2003 school year, the latest available, show that it's part of a larger pattern.

During that year, Charlotte's school system endured 11 sexual assaults, 18 sexual offenses, 11 assaults resulting in serious injury, and 12 incidents of possession of a firearm. All of the above occurred either on school property, at school functions, or on the bus. Yet only nine students were expelled from the system. Nine. So where are these kids, Dr. Pughsley? Did the administration dump them in poor inner-city schools too, where they're the least likely to attract attention and the most likely to prey on kids whose parents don't have the resources to fight back? Or do you actually know where they are in the system?

Regular readers of this column know that since the beginning of the year, I've been on a mission to figure out just what it takes to get a violent kid removed from the system. Now I know. It took two columns in CL and considerable outrage from our readers.

The good news is that our sources say this kid has finally been removed from West Meck and is being educated by the system in a home-based setting. According to the memo, although CL initially reported that he was a 19-year-old ninth-grader, he's actually been in the eleventh grade since 2001.

In the meantime, according to the memo, the school system is now working with the Sheriff's Department and considering other "in house" options to ensure that administrators are notified when students wind up on the sex offender registry.

I hope they're serious. No kid should have to go through what the female student at North Mecklenburg did.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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