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Context key for educators in protecting students

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About 15 years ago, a Center Grove third-grader who brought a knife to school to slice up an apple at lunch could be expelled with no questions asked.

At the time, schools across the country were doing anything they could to keep weapons out of schools and to avoid tragedies such as the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado.

But zero-tolerance policies don’t take context or intent into account when a student has a knife, sharp object or other potentially dangerous item at school.

An elementary student could have a pocket knife in a backpack that the youngster forgot was there. Or a high school student might have a box cutter needed for a class at the Central Nine Career Center.

These and other instances are why Center Grove relaxed its policy around 2002, assistant superintendent Bill Long said.

State law requires schools to expel students who bring firearms to school for one calendar year, and all of Johnson County’s public school districts will suspend or expel students who use any object to threaten students or employees.

However, at Center Grove and Clark-Pleasant, school officials also will consider the student’s intent if a knife or other dangerous item is found at school, as well as the student’s record.

Students aren’t supposed to have knives, brass knuckles, or Airsoft or lookalike guns at school, and those who bring them likely will be disciplined.

But if school officials can verify through surveillance footage or interviews with others that a student has made a mistake and wasn’t trying to hurt someone, then that student won’t necessarily be kicked out of school, Long and Clark-Pleasant assistant superintendent John Schilawski said.

“At some point, common sense has got to weigh in a little bit,” Long said.

School officials also have to ensure as they conduct investigations that they’re doing everything possible to keep students safe. So they also need proof that a student found with a dangerous item at school wasn’t trying to hurt anyone.

“We have to pretend upfront that everything is as it looks. You don’t have the opportunity to be incorrect when you’re dealing with children and their safety,” Schilawski said. “If one child gets hurt, that is a concern for the entire school, the entire student body and the entire community.”

The decision about whether a student is suspended or expelled depends largely on what the youngster was planning to do. For example, if a Whiteland Community High School student threatens someone with a screwdriver, that student is going to be removed from school, Schilawski said.

A middle school student found with an Airsoft gun could be more complicated.

Airsoft guns use compressed air or springs to fire plastic pellets. They often look like actual firearms and are banned from Clark-Pleasant schools.

A student who brings an Airsoft gun to school could be expelled, but school officials can consider other factors before making that decision, Schilawski said.

If a student has never been in trouble before and can prove that bringing the Airsoft gun to school was unintentional, such as if the youngster had plans to play with it after school at home or a park, then officials could decide on an alternative to expulsion program.

In that case, a student would remain at Clark-Pleasant and could still participate in sports and clubs, but the student couldn’t get into any other trouble with teachers or principals, Schilawski said.

Sometimes students in younger grades may have objects, such as brass knuckles or a pocket knife, that they want to show off to their friends. School officials tell students they should always check with their parents and teachers before bringing anything to school so they can avoid getting into trouble, Schilawski said.

“You just make sure you’re not having accidents,” Schilawski said.

Students also can avoid trouble if they turn in items they find or tell someone immediately if they inadvertently bring something they shouldn’t to school.

Students who were fishing after school the day before or who are coming from Central Nine might find a knife or box cutter they forgot they had.

If the students tell a teacher or principal what happened, that they inadvertently brought an item to school, they could have to leave it in the office or with an adult until their parent picks it up.

But they’re unlikely to get into trouble, Schilawski and Long said.

“It’s still all about relationships,” Schilawski said.

“Why would you hamper that kids’ trust?”

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