Student J in the Smyrna School District was a victim of a bizarre scenario where he wound up expelled from the school district and arrested.
As parents in Delaware, many of us are aware of school choice. This can mean many things. It means we could send our child to a charter, vocational, or magnet school. We could choose to keep our children in the local school district. Some even choose to send their child to a private school. Other parents go the homeschool route. Some parents could make a choice to opt their child out of the state assessment. We have many available choices involving how we want our children educated. But what happens when those choices get torn away from you? One by one?
For J and his mom, the answer was not what they expected. They were forced to fight against many forces. J’s mom had to fight for her child and do whatever it took. She had to go up as many levels as she possibly could. She was met with resistance at every single level. This is the story about what happened to J. As I wrote yesterday in the prelude to this story, all information was provided by J’s mom and she gave me her permission to write his story.
The first incident involving J happened at Smyrna Middle School on November 4th, 2015 in a 7th grade home economics class. J was speaking with his friend M. M mentioned he smelled gunpowder. J said “It’s a terrorist”. To put things in perspective, J was voted class clown at the end of the 2014-2015 school year. J pointed to M when he said it. A paraprofessional in the room claimed to overhear J and M’s conversation. She immediately accused J of pointing at a student near the refrigerator named P who happened to be Muslim. She took J and M out of the classroom and told the teacher she would explain when she got back. Instead of taking J and M to the Principal or Associate Principal, the paraprofessional brought them to an in-school suspension room. J received a suspension of two days for this incident.
Mom got a call from the school notifying her J was suspended. She agreed to a meeting with the Principal and the School Resource Officer when J returned to go over the incident and steps to take moving forward. P alleged that J had said something derogatory to her one other time in the home economics class. She apparently did not tell anyone about that incident in which she claimed he yelled “Allah Akbar”.
A discipline hearing occurred with the district in September of 2016, between J and the district. The following quotes from various people are from the actual transcription of that hearing. During the hearing, J’s mom said the following:
So there was another student there. And the other student… actually, what J had said was just reacting to what the student said and had nothing to do with P at all. I believe it had more to do with (when) they were already evacuated out of school once for a bomb threat. And that two boys, that’s what they were discussing and making jokes over, which isn’t anything funny to laugh at anyway, but it had nothing to do with P that day in home ec.
I don’t even know why she was questioned after that, because nobody… somebody had made the statement that he pointed at her. And that didn’t happen either. He was pointing at his friend across from him that was making the statements about smelling gunpowder and like somebody is making a bomb and…
At that point, the district’s attorney, Allyson DiRocco, objected to J’s mother to which the hearing officer complied.
Where things get confusing though is the statement given by the main teacher in the home economics class at the time of the incident. She did not hear any of this but relied on the paraprofessional’s description of the events.
When she returned, she informed me that the other student and J were referring to her as a terrorist and making comments about her attire.
But in the paraprofessional’s statement from that day, she wrote the following:
During the class period I overheard two boys M and J laughing loudly. I overheard one boy says “It smells like a guns in here.” I could not make out which one said it. Then I heard J say “Yeah, it smells like a terrorist in here and it’s coming by the fridge.” He pointed at a girl who was wearing a head covering.
Both the statements conflicted each other. The teacher said J was making fun of her attire, but not a word was said about that in the paraprofessional’s statement.
According to P’s statement, the alleged victim, she wrote:
It was in home ec and J was saying that he could smell a terrorist in the room and that they were making guns and I could hear him…
She never once mentioned J pointed at her or said anything about her attire. Which contradicts the teacher and the paraprofessional’s statements. What is the truth? According to J’s statement, it matched that of his mother’s testimony.
Me and M were playing around and M said “I smell gunpowder. Then I said “I smell a terrorist” and pointed at M.
Where it gets even more interesting is the Smyrna School District Discipline Referral report in which the Associate Principal John Camponelli states:
Student made inappropriate comments about having guns in school, and made other comments about “smelling a terrorist” in school.
The Muslim girl was not mentioned in the discipline referral report at all.
Camponelli testified during this hearing about what happened. In describing his investigation with P, the alleged victim, he said:
She did not like to… she doesn’t like to call a whole lot of attention to herself. She was very brief in what she was saying to me, and then wrote the statement outlining her side of the story.
When asked what else he did with the investigation, he said:
Well, I would call… I called… the one student received the consequence, and that was dealt with accordingly. J was also called down, was issued a consequence for making inappropriate comments about having guns in school and made other comments about smelling a terrorist in school. He received a consequence for that. And a parent meeting actually ensued for which Mr. Gott, our principal, and Officer Weller were a part of to discuss the incident and how to make sure that things like this would not happen.
Note that Camponelli said nothing about a potential arrest if this happened again.
During Principal Steve Gott’s testimony about the incident, he testified he became aware of the incident through Camponelli and was aware he issued a consequence to J. Gott testified about the meeting with J, his mom, and School Resource Officer Jessica Weller:
We typically do this in major discipline issues, fighting. You know, in this case inappropriate comments are made, just more of a counseling component when they come back just so we address the issue, we talk about possible solutions and basically a path moving forwards. But it was very specific in our conversation with mom that if it were to happen again, it would quite possibly involve police action. So we did make it clear to mom along with J at the meeting.
J’s mom was able to cross-examine Gott which led to some knowledge that should have ended things right then and there, but it didn’t.
J’s Mom: I’m just kind of wondering how it became about P. Because you had said that J had pointed at her, and that’s what the report said. And it says on here that M said that you were pointing… he was… which I was told that M also said that J was pointing at him. So I’m just confused on how that all got changed and how it became about P.
DiRocco: Is there a document you are looking for?
Gott: There we go. So I’m unsure of the question.
J’s Mom: Okay. Well, when I had talked to you about…
Gott: Yeah, yeah.
J’s Mom: …the incident…
J’s Mom: …there was nothing ever brought up to me until the school that day about it hurting… it being about P. I knew there was concern about what if she would have heard, it could have hurt her feelings. But it seems as though it all got turned around from talking about smelling gunpowder and bombs. And, like I said, they had already been evacuated once because of a bomb threat in the school.
Later on in the conversation, J’s mom states the following:
And it sounds like you were questioning her like something happened to her. And at that point nothing was about her. It’s you guys that made it about her, not J.
Concerning the meeting with J, J’s mom, Gott and Weller, DiRocco asked Weller some questions about the meeting.
DiRocco: And did you advise mom, the parents of J, and J in November of 2015 that if his conduct occurred again, that he would be charged with a hate crime criminally?
Weller: I don’t feel comfortable answering questions, considering there is a pending criminal case.
DiRocco: Okay. Okay. Understood.
Weller: I’m not going to get myself jammed up here.
What was the criminal charge against J? To be continued in Part 2: The Arrest.
Before I go, I do have some questions. Why weren’t J and M brought to the Principal’s office? Why were they sent to an in-school suspension room by a paraprofessional? I didn’t know paraprofessionals had that kind of school authority to determine how a student should be punished for some type of infraction. As well, the paraprofessional once dated J’s step-brother which may not mean anything. Delaware is a small place. But given that this incident was given great weight by what the paraprofessional said, I am not discounting anything. The statements by the teacher, the paraprofessional, and Camponelli on the day of the incident all have conflict in them. I am not an attorney by any means, but even I can see there was not enough compelling evidence to suggest J was pointing at P, the Muslim girl when he made a comment about a terrorist. I see a ton of reasonable doubt in this.
One other thing to point out. At the time of this incident, Delaware along with many other states were getting very bizarre bomb threats called in to several schools. It made media headlines in Delaware and throughout the country. This was referenced by J’s mom during the hearing a few times. Did the school offer any type of advice or meetings with students explaining what was going on with these bomb threats? And how serious they were? I don’t think any student should joke about terrorists, but it is something I’ve seen many times on social media or out in public. These are kids, teenagers. They say inappropriate things. I’m not saying it was alright for them to joke around like that, but I also see them at that age. I was a teen once. So were you. None of us were angels. I will get more into this aspect of things later, but I wanted to put it out there now. Keep in mind, J was in 7th grade when this happened. 7th grade.
In the Prelude, I put a lot of focus on Smyrna Superintendent Patrik Williams. While he has yet to play a role in this saga, he becomes a very major player as this went on.