Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Help Me Howard: Teargas
One South Florida mother thought she was doing the right thing to protect her teenage daughter, but because of it, the school kicked her out. Is it fair? Legal? It's tonight's Help Me Howard with Patrick Fraser.
WSVN -- It is dark every morning when Erin heads off to school.
Erin Bodle: "It is really dark, and there are not that many people outside."
Robin Cook: "It's scary."
Erin Bodle: "It's scary."
To protect her daughter, Robin gave her a small canister of tear gas.
Robin Cook: "I decided to go with the pepper spray. It is to protect her from people coming up and attacking her, raping her or whatever."
Erin is a senior at Palmetto High School. Not just a good girl but also a good student.
Patrick Fraser: "What kind of grades to you get in school?"
Erin Bodle: "I get 'A's and 'B's, and like, 'A's in conduct too you know."
Patrick Fraser: "Do you ever get in trouble?"
Erin Bodle: "No, I don't."
And following her mother's directions, Erin kept her pepper spray hidden in her backpack at school.
Erin Bodle: "I put it right here in the side zipper, so that no one could get a hold of it, and I put it in there, and I zip it up.
Erin Bodle: "I didn't really think anything. I didn't even think I was going to get in trouble because I didn't really think this was a weapon."
The State of Florida does not consider this half ounce canister a weapon, but the Miami-Dade School District does, and when school officials did a search of a classroom, Erin's canister was confiscated and her life devastated.
Robin Cook: "Then the vice-principal calls me, and says, 'By the way, we did a random search, and we found a can of mace in your daughter's purse, so she is now on suspension for 10 days.'"
Ten days of missing classwork and then it got worse. Erin was told she was being kicked out of school and sent to an alternative school for at least 10 weeks.
Erin Bodle: "I think it is horrible and unfair."
All because she took her mother's advice, a mother trying to protect her daughter by giving her this small canister of pepper spray.
Robin Cook: "I don't think it is fair, like I was saying, that she should be suspended or expelled, for something this small, to defend herself."
When Robin met with the principal she was told: "We have a zero tolerance policy that we don't allow weapons on school grounds."
But Robin argues with the school that the punishment does not fit the crime, that she gave her daughter the canister to protect her at a dark bus stop.
Erin Bodle: "I'm going to ask him, 'If he has kids, how would he protect his kids? If he has a better option or a better idea, please share, because we couldn't come up with anything better.'"
Now Erin's senior year is ruined. Potentially, her chances of going to college or getting a scholarship are in danger, all because of this small canister. Howard, is that legal?
Howard Finklestein: "Sometimes, zero tolerance policies serve a purpose, but they are a bureaucratic lazy-minded solution. Yes, some kids get the punishment they deserve, but for some like Erin, it is harsh and it's unfair and it even leaves school officials, who know that what they are doing is wrong, with no room to exercise discretion."
I spoke to several people, the school principal, a district spokesman. Their bottom line: "We are following our zero tolerance policy."
Then I spoke to the school police chief, Charlie Hurley, who was open and honest. He told me the policy is callous. It's unforgiving, but that "we have no room in our schoolhouse for a weapon, " that if the wrong kid brought tear gas to school and started spraying teachers and kids we would have major problems.
When I asked how he would advise parents to protect their children at a dark bus stop, he said the simple answer is for parents to take turns watching. Then he added, "It's a complicated challenging issue that we have to protect the children before they get to school, and I would love to meet with parents to develop ideas for a safety plan."
Howard Finklestein: "In the years we have been doing Help Me Howard, there is usually an obvious solution to the problem. This is one of the exceptions. Fortunately, the chief is willing to meet with parents and take the first step to find a solution. Let's hope parents take him up on it."
For Erin, the news keeps getting worse. She has started at the alternative school but has been told to hand in all her books from Palmetto, leaving her worried she will never be allowed to return to Palmetto.
Patrick Fraser: "What do you want to see happen?"
Erin Bodle: "I want to be able to go back to Palmetto and finish my senior year and graduate with my class."
Now, you may be thinking, why can't Erin drop off the tear gas at the school before going to class. The school won't allow it. So what is the solution? How can you defend your child without getting them in trouble? When you come up with the answer, let me know.
Peppered with problems that have left you on the verge of tears? Don't suspend your hope. Contact us. We have zero tolerance for bureaucratic baloney.
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