Pubdate: Sat, 16 Nov 2002
Source: Times Daily (Florence, AL)
Copyright: 2002 Times Daily
Author: Lisa Singleton-Rickman


The expulsion of a Muscle Shoals senior football player last week sent a 
signal that the city's school system will take drastic action when school 
policies are violated.

In that case, the school board ruled that Cody Dixon, a student accused of 
possessing drug paraphernalia on campus, would not be allowed to finish his 
senior year at Muscle Shoals High School.

His expulsion is for the remainder of the school year. He may be 
re-enrolled at the beginning of the 2003-2004 school year in August 
provided he undergoes drug counseling and submits a clean drug test report 
prior to enrollment.

Area school system policies differ on how to handle cases like Dixon's. 
Some take a hard-line approach; others are more lenient - leaning toward 
offering students rehabilitation options.

The state has no hard and fast rules for how to handle most disciplinary 
issues in the schools.

Dixon's family chose for his disciplinary hearing before the school board 
to be open to the public.

Students lined the walls of the auditorium as testimony was given about the 
events of Oct. 28, when Principal H.L. Noah and school resource officer 
Scott Hamilton searched Dixon's car. They found a pipe containing marijuana 

Dixon was automatically suspended for two weeks, as called for by school 
policy. The policy states that such a violation subjects the student to 
severe disciplinary action by school officials.

Noah testified during the Nov. 12 hearing that he followed administrative 
procedure by explaining Dixon's two options: withdraw from the school 
system or proceed with a disciplinary hearing before the school board.

Dixon's parents hired attorney Hank Sherrod, who argued that the school 
board should consider the evidence and make its decision accordingly. He 
provided the board with the results of Dixon's recent negative drug test. 
Dixon also testified that he has not used drugs since the summer.

He testified that he had forgotten the pipe was in his vehicle and that it 
had been there since he and other boys had used it last summer.

Sherrod said the punishment did not fit the offense.

"This was clearly a case in which a lesser penalty would have sufficed," he 

He told the board during the hearing that an expulsion places a mark on 
Dixon for the rest of his life. He said the case wasn't black and white, 
and the school board was being called upon to make a

tough decision.

School board attorney Ken Hewlett said the school system ultimately has the 
responsibility of "looking out for the other 2,399 students."

Board member Pam Doyle called the decision gut-wrenching but one that the 
board considered carefully.

"I hated it so badly for that young man," she said. "On one hand, you want 
young people to know that people do deserve second chances, but on the 
other hand, we have a policy that lists punishment including expulsion for 
that offense."

Sherrod repeatedly asked the board not to make Dixon an example.

Doyle said that was not the board's intent.

"It was more a matter of taking a policy and abiding by it," she said. "We 
have to be consistent."

Seeking consistency In a sense, consistency is hard to achieve, education 
officials say.

Sue Adams, the education administrator in the office of prevention and 
support services at the State Department of Education, said all school 
systems struggle with consistency in disciplinary actions.

"There are always different sets of circumstances," Adams said. "More and 
more (districts) are instituting flat policies, black or white and no gray. 
It's how they say to students, we will not put up with this."

Then there are the more difficult calls to make, like in the case of a 
south Alabama school district earlier this year.

A middle school student took a bottle of liquor to school and traded it 
with another student for five fishing lures.

That student traded the bottle as well. Soon, several students were 
involved in similar transactions.

"The result was a big mess for the school system to have to sort out," she 
said. "Officials in that system had to evaluate all the circumstances."

Because more school systems have to deal with drugs, alcohol and weapons 
than ever before, Adams said more are adopting strict policies.

She said school boards and superintendents have alternative punishments 
under the law, even when federally mandated "zero-tolerance laws" apply.

The federal law states that students in possession of guns on school 
property are subject to expulsion. State law expands that policy to include 
weapons in general.

Zero tolerance Some school systems have their own versions of 
zero-tolerance policies.

All school systems expel students found in possession of guns.

In Lauderdale County schools, students found in possession of drugs and 
alcohol are "pretty much treated in the same respect," said Assistant 
Superintendent MarkButler.

Students in violation of weapons or drug policies usually withdraw, he 
said. Even so, the school board will hold an expulsion hearing without the 
student but where they view the evidence presented by the school principal.

"The school board gets the formal documentation in place so that the 
student who withdrew doesn't come back within the expulsion period," Butler 
said. "It's a safeguard for the school system."

In Florence, disciplinary policies have changed in recent years.

Superintendent Kendy Behrends said her system's policy allows 
administrators to take each case on an individual basis.

In any circumstance, the student has a right to a hearing. Automatic 
expulsion is warranted if guns are found.

Other cases such as drugs, however, are often handled differently.

"We need to try to get help for students who need it without jeopardizing 
other students," she said. "If they go through a reputable program and 
provide documentation of their successful completion, they can be 
transitioned back into school when that occurs, often in the same year."

She said parents have been cooperative with school officials in the process.

"The burden is definitely on the parent and child to get the help, but we 
would rather them be here getting an education," she said. "We feel it's 
our duty to work with these kids so they can overcome these problems and 
have a successful life."
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