Expulsion overturned for boy at heart of Center probe

County board of education says slap on the rear doesn't merit harsh punishment

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A California school board has cancelled the proposed expulsion of a sixth-grade boy featured in a Center for Public Integrity investigation into harsh school discipline.   

The Kern County Board of Education voted Tuesday to overturn the 11-year-old’s expulsion for alleged  sexual battery and obscenity. Earlier this year, the boy was accused of swatting a female student on the rear at his school in Bakersfield, Calif. A first-tier expulsion panel and the youngster’s local city school board had both upheld the boy’s proposed expulsion for the rest of the year.  

Earlier this week, the boy’s case was detailed in a Center piece examining the widespread increase in school expulsions arising from “zero tolerance” policies nationwide. Kern County is at the leading edge of an increasing contentioius debate over where to draw the line in exacting schhol discipline.  

In the 2010-11 academic year,  Kern’s schools expelled in excess of 2,500 students, more than any other California county, including Los Angeles, which has nine times the enrollment of Kern. Among Kern’s expulsions were 105 for obscenity, more than one in four of all California’s expulsions for that reason.

“You have laws, but you have to have common sense along with it,” said 35-year Kern County Board of Education member Ronald Froehlich. He said another disciplinary action would have been more appropriate in the boy’s case. “To put this on his record,” Froehlich said, “to carry with him through school, is just too great.”   

The Kern County Board of Education normally faces very few expulsion appeals — only six last year — despite the county’s high volume of expulsions.

“We’ve always been a no-foolishness county with our schools, just like we have been with law enforcement here,” Froehlich said. He supports toughness, he said, but has disagreed with some expulsions approved by boards governing Bakersfield and the Kern High School District.   

“Most of the time they just rubber stamp these, both the city and the high school board,” he said.

The sixth-grade boy will be transferred to another school in his district, said Tim McKinley, the student’s pro bono lawyer. For the past two months, while the case wound its way through appeals, the boy has been attending a “community” alternative school in Bakersfield for expelled students and minors on probation.

Froehlich said the community school does a good job, but is not equal to a regular school. “You need a well-rounded education, with your peers,” he said.

In a brief McKinley submitted to the county board, he argued that the boy’s offense was “certainly inappropriate” but it did not rise to the legal definition of sexual battery. He also said that the boy has been subjected to prior “punitive” disciplinary action at his school because of his “scholastic behavior,” and that the school has not offered him psychological counseling or assessment.  

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