The Smyrna School District Zero Tolerance Pipeline Part 9: Criminal Contempt & Finale

We reach the end of our series.  A new player joins the wide cast of characters with a very important role.  And what is J’s final fate?

In the last chapter, J was getting pummeled by various state agencies: The Smyrna School District, The State Board of Education, The Delaware Department of Education, and The Delaware Department of Justice.  For allegedly calling a girl a terrorist ten months earlier.  He was up on truancy charges.  The Delaware DOE rescinded the home school certificate four days after they approved one for her.  Is this kid ever going to get a break?

Delaware Justice of the Peace Alexander Montano was assigned J’s truancy case.  On February 16th, he reviewed the case.  He made a decision which would be of significant importance.  I will put the actual letter up in an epilogue, but it is also worth typing out as well.  It is THAT important!  Certain case #s are taken out from the original letter.

RE: State v. J (Juvenile), Case No. #…

On Truancy Civil Violation Against J

Decided: February 16, 2017

Dear Ms. J’s mother:

Pending before the Court is a Truancy Civil Violation against J for Title 14 Del. C. §2702 “Failure to Attend School”.  Representing the State is Smyrna School District’s Visiting Teaacher (V.T.), Pamela Denney-Griffiths.

On Janary 12, 2017 V.T. Griffiths submitted a warrant at the Justice of the Peace Court through which the child, J, was charged.  It is alleged by V.T. Griffiths that the child, J, failed to attend Parkway Academy from December 12, 2016 through January 11, 2017.  An arraignment was set for January 24, 2017.

On January 24, 2017, J and his parent were arraigned.  During this time, Ms. J’s mother and her son were given the opportunity to either plead guilty or not guilty to said charges.  Ms. J’s mother provided an affirmative defense at pretrial by explaining that she applied and was finally approved for Home Schooling (code #…) by the Department of Education.

In response, V.T. Griffiths expressed that the Department of Education had closed the child’s school code #… because the family had a pending truancy case and accused Ms. J’s mother of fraudulently applying for home schooling because she knew that there were charges pending against her son.  V.T. Griffiths also added that Ms. J’s mother is to comply with the Smyrna School District’s order for her son to attend Parkway Academy.

Ms. J’s mother appeared upset and confused about the cancellation of the Home Schooling and stated that during her appeal with the Board of Education they informed her that she could Home School her son if she did not want to send her child to Parkway Academy.  Ms. J’s mother closed by pleading “not guilty”.  A trial date was scheduled for February 28, 2017 at 1:00pm.  The Court’s release conditions for the child, J, were that he was to continue with his “tentative” home schooling and that the parent was to provide proof of work.

On February 1, 2017, the Court’s Pretrial Probation Officer (P.O.), Ms. Mackenzie Smith, contacted the Court for clarifications regarding the Judge’s Order for J.  She stated that the Department of Education (D.O.E.), Ms. Suzanne Hamill, needed something in writing from the Court stating that the parent can begin Home Schooling again.  The Court informed P.O. Smith that it was all clearly stated on the Bond Conditions.  P.O. Smith then relayed the information to D.O.E.

On February 2, 2017, the Department of Education, Ms. Debbie Stover, explained to the Court why they could not allow the parent to conduct Home Schooling.  She expressed that “historically, when faced with similar facts, the DOE has not processed any home school application until informed by the JP Court that the truancy charges are resolved.”  It further explained that, “the DOE’s policy of not opening a home school when truancy charges are pending furthers the intent of the truancy statute overall, precluding a student (or parent) from avoiding a finding of truancy by merely registering a new home school.”

DISCUSSION

This case only pertains to matters which occurred on or after December 12, 2016, as stated on the warrant, case #….

Smyrna School District’s Jurisdiction

On the day of Arraignment, the Smyrna School District’s Visiting Teacher (V.T.), Pamela Denney-Griffiths, made reference to a directive from the Smyrna School District that the child, J, must attend Parkway Academy as part of the conditions of the expulsion.  However, as of January 20, 2017 the parent received her Home Schooling authorization code and withdrew her child from the Smyrna School District.  According to Title 14 Del. C. §4130 Expulsion of Students; re-enrollment, paragraph (a), “In any case where a public school student is expelled from a school district or a charter school, the expelled student shall not be permitted to reenroll in any other school district or charter school in this State until after the full period of expulsion from the school district or charter school where the student was expelled shall have expired.”  In this instance, once the parent withdrew her child from the school, the School District’s conditions of expulsions are no longer in effect as the parent received approval for Home Schooling which is not considered a public or charter school.

Cancellation of the Home Schooling Authorization

Visiting Teacher (V.T.), Pamela Denney-Griffiths, provided the Court with an e-mail dated January 24, 2017 is which the Department of Education expresses “it has come to their attention that there is an active truancy case; and, therefore, closing the Home Schooling pending the resolution of the truancy matter by the court.  According to Title 14 Del.C. §2733 Jurisdiction; Venue, paragraph (c); “in the event that the student withdraws from the school for any reason (other than age and enrollment into another public school) the court, in its discretion, may retain jurisdiction for the purpose of ensuring that the student’s alternative educational environment was not an attempt to avoid the compulsory attendance requirements.”  In this instance, the parent should have been able to retain her license to Home School, as there was yet to be a determination if the Court would retain jurisdiction to “ensure that the student’s alternative educational environment was not an attempt to avoid the compulsory attendance requirements.”

Bond Conditions Denied

The Board of Education, by way of Ms. Suzanne Hill and Ms. Debbie Stover, has expressed reasons for not allowing the Court’s Order (bond conditions) to be executed.  The statements provided to support their position wasn’t that it wasn’t just “historical”, but that it is “DOE’s policy of not opening a school when truancy charges are pending furthers the intent of the truancy statute overall, precluding a student (or parent) from avoiding a finding of truancy by merely registering a new home school”.  Once again, we reference, Title 14 Del.C. §2733 Jurisdiction; Venue, paragraph (c); “in the event that the student withdraws from school for any reason (other than age and enrollment into another public school) the court, in its discretion, may retain jurisdiction for the purpose of ensuring that the student’s alternative educational environment was not an attempt to avoid the compulsory attendance requirements:.  The expressed “DOE policy” appears to be premature if it closed the child’s Home Schooling prior to the Court’s determination on whether or not to retain jurisdiction for oversight.  Additionally, by refusing to follow the Court’s Order to temporarily reinstate the Home Schooling authorization, there is a heightened interest for justice, as it is the child who continues to suffer from lack of adequate educational support.

Concerns of Criminal Contempt

In accordance with Title 14 Del.C. §2728 Procedure for Court Adjudication paragraph (d); “the court, in its discretion, may postpone proceedings and may impose conditions on the student and or parent”.  In this situation, the Board of Education’s members blocked the Court’s mandates which may have been beneficial to the child’s continuing education.  To some concern, this “resistance to the process, injunction, or other mandate of a court” borders on criminal contempt, as per Title 11 Del.C. §1271, paragraph 3.

CONCLUSION

For the reasons stated above, the Court retains jurisdiction over the case and immediately discharges the case on grounds that the Court is satisfied that the parent is doing all that she can to provide her child with an alternative educational environment and the Court is convinced that this is not an attempt to avoid the compulsory attendance.

The parent and child no longer have a Truancy case and are expected to immediately re-enroll with Home Schooling via (redacted).

IT IS SO ORDERED

Very Truly Yours,

Alexander J. Montano

CC;d:

  1. Pamela Denney-Griffiths, Smyrna S.D.
  2. Bonnie S. Gladau, D.A.G.
  3. Valerie A. Dunkle, D.O.J.

Basically, Judge Montano bitch-slapped the Delaware DOE.  While he states the “Board of Education”, it was the actual Delaware DOE who went against the bond conditions.  Which brings us fill circle back to the Prelude of this series.  On March 1st, 2017, Smyrna School District Assistant Superintendent Patrik Williams, who was probably pretty sure he would get the Superintendent role when Deborah Wicks retired on June 30th, wrote another letter to J’s mother.  I will also type that out.

March 1, 2017

Ms. J’s mother:

This letter is to confirm the Smyrna School District’s position regarding your son, J, in light of recent events.  Please note that the Justice of the Peace Court has no authority regarding J’s expulsion from the Smyrna School District, and, in fact, the expulsion does remain in full effect whether he is enrolled or withdrawn from Smyrna Middle School.  Should you ever wish to return to the Smyrna School District, we would welcome back J, as previously noted, once he has completed his 180 days of alternative education at Parkway Academy Central, as well as a sensitivity awareness counseling program administered by a professionally licensed therapist.

Should you ever have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

Sincerely,

Patrik Williams

Asst. Superintendent

And that was the last correspondence from Patrik Williams to J’s mother.  During the time since, J did complete his sensitivity awareness counseling program administered by a professionally licensed therapist.  He even got a certificate for it!

J also finished his community service hours that were a part of his plea bargain.  He wrote an apology letter to P as part of that agreement as well.  J is still a home school student in Delaware.  His family applied to First State Military Academy.  At first, they could not accept the application until the full 180 day expulsion period ended, as per Delaware state code.  He is now on a waiting list.  Recently, J’s mother received a letter stating J’s harassment charge has been expunged from his record.

I first heard about this story on June 11th.  I contacted J’s mother and we agreed to meet, along with two other people, at the Smyrna Diner off Route 13.  She came with mounds of paperwork.  I was lost for a bit.  I had to put it all together.  It didn’t take long.  I reviewed the entire case and knew this was going to be big.  A situation happened at the Smyrna Diner which can only happen in Delaware.  During our lunch/meeting, Principal Steve Gott came in along with an attorney for the district.  They didn’t stay that long.  As well, P and her family came in.  At first, I wondered what strange little diner I had walked into, but then I remembered… this is classic Delaware.

During the course of this series, I met with J’s mother on a couple of occasions to fill in some blanks and to clarify information.  Countless phone calls ensued as well.  As I stated in the beginning of this series, every word in this series was done with permission from J’s mother and father.  Due to FERPA regulations, which deals with student privacy issues, I knew the Smyrna School District or Smyrna Board of Education would not be able to verify any information.  But J’s mother provided me with more than enough paperwork to do this story justice.  I also want to thank other witnesses who attended these meetings with J’s mother who also provided pertinent information as well.

I don’t know how often Patrik Williams reads this blog.  I know he read the article I wrote about his letter to the Delaware DOE regarding Regulation 616 a year and a half ago, because I actually emailed him a link to it as well as thanked him for standing up to the DOE.  He sent me a response thanking me for my article.  As I stated in the prelude though, I look upon that letter now with different eyes.  What I once thought was funny, I now see as a very dangerous letter given what happened with J.  I’ve heard from other parents about what they view as harsh zero tolerance policies in Smyrna School District where the punishment is much more severe than the actual violation of the student code of conduct.

In the letter, which can be found here, Williams lambasted the Delaware DOE for daring to put another witness in a discussion between an administrator and a student in a discipline incident.  He blasts the DOE for wanting a shorter time period in which a discipline hearing can occur.  He doesn’t want the ability for comment on the Hearing Officer’s final report.  All of these items could actually have made the incidents with between J and P, along with J’s discipline hearing with Smyrna School District, more palatable than the circus that did occur.

Patrik Williams did contact me about this article on June 19th, a few days after the first article went up.  If Williams is an active reader of this blog, he should know that I love publishing emails.  As one of the biggest fans of transparency in the entire state, I am going to present Williams letter as well as my response to him.  I have not heard back from Williams since.

In my response to Patrik Williams, I rewrote the questions:

June 19th, 2017

Dear Smyrna Superintendent Patrik Williams,

Thank you for reaching out to me. I’m sorry I don’t have an official banner on my letter.  Being a voluntary blogger doesn’t allow me to have fancy stuff.  I could probably put one in, but I’m a plain kind of guy.

I would like to take the opportunity to respond to your eight questions.

1) Do you know what Student J actually did which finally resulted in a disciplinary hearing, as well as any prior efforts to intervene, educate and counsel before it resulted in discipline?

Yes I do. He was alleged to have said something in the hallway which was video recorded with no audio and supposedly called Student P a “terrorist” again.

2) Did you receive from Student J’s family the actual transcript, and if so, did you read it in its entirety?

Yes, I do have a copy of the entire transcript which made it possible for me to put actual quotes from it in Part 1 of the series. It is around 167 pages, with the transcript and all the evidence cited in the hearing.  I plan on using it some more.

3) Are you aware of Regulation 611 governing expulsions and placements at the Consortium Discipline Alternative Program?

Yes, I am very aware of Regulation 611, including the following:

1.3 School districts may place a student in a Consortium Discipline Alternative Program for classroom or school environment disruptions only if:

1.3.1 Such disruptions are chronic and repetitive; and

1.3.2 The student has participated in all available School Based Intervention Programs pursuant to 14 DE Admin. Code 609 and continues to routinely and seriously disrupt the classroom and impede the learning of other students.

I don’t consider the comments, which are suspect to begin with based on the nature of them and how they were supposedly heard by others, to be “chronic” and “repetitive”. The second “incident” (which I will be writing about very soon) did not take place in a classroom and it did not impede the learning of other students.  Furthermore, was there ever an attempt to get both J and P together and perhaps have some type of restorative justice take place in which the two could possibly tell their own sides of the story and get to know each other as opposed to what did happen?

4) Do you know why the Justice of the Peace Court is referenced, given that district expulsion cases are appealed to the State Board of Education?

I sure do. He was brought up on truancy charges cause his mother didn’t want him going to the Parkway Academy and opted to homeschool him instead.  The State Board gave her that option as a recommendation for his education.  Then the DOE decided to rescind her homeschool certificate which wound up as part of Judge Montano’s order.   I even have the order from Judge Montano where he wanted to hold some folks in contempt.

5) Are you aware that the State Board of Education affirmed the Smyrna School District Board of Education’s decision in this case?

I am. I also know the same reasoning behind Smyrna School District’s Board of Education seemed to apply with the State Board of Education.  I’m also aware the State Board of Education is going through Joint Sunset Review and they are first on the chopping block with education cuts.  They will probably survive from what I’m hearing with their funding coming from the DOE.  But holding the State Board’s decision as some holy grail of a decision-making process is faulty at best in my opinion.

6) Do you know the extent to which the victim suffered due to the situation that led to discipline?

Based on what is in the transcript, yes. But if there was more to it than that, I would not possibly know that.  I can only go based on the language in the transcript.  I would be more than happy to talk to her and her mother in regards to this series of articles.  But the heart of my series is about due process and what I view to be a railroading of Student J.  I am not making excuses for what he said in the home economics class.  But I don’t believe it was directed at Student P.  It was two kids joking around, in 7th grade mind you, about something inappropriate.  And given that many school districts, including Smyrna, were subject to numerous bomb threats during that time period, it may have been something that affected students more than we can possibly know.

7) Are you aware that the victim, accompanied by her mother, gathered her courage and testified in person as to the extent she was affected negatively?

Yes, I am. I have the transcript of the discipline hearing.

8) Or, alternatively, since I presume you cannot answer questions 1-7 in the affirmative, are you simply writing defamatory articles based on the receipt of one portion of one side of the case, independent of any true investigation into the facts?

Those were seven affirmatives, so there is no alternative news here. I would assume the transcript has what was reported as the true investigation into the facts, at least I would hope that is the case.  Yes, I am getting this from one person as I often do for my articles.  But let’s get real here.  If I asked the district to comment on this, I would get a “no comment” based on the fact that you aren’t allowed to give out personal student information. 

I have no doubt this series is something you would rather not see, but given the nature of what happened to Student J and his family over the past year and a half, I see him as a victim in all of this as well. I’m sure we can agree to disagree on that, but that is my perception as well as that of the majority of folks I’ve heard from just based on Part 1.  But the series is not finished yet, so we shall see what will happen when it all comes out.

Thank you,

Kevin Ohlandt

Exceptional Delaware


CONCLUSIONS AND THOUGHTS

At the time I wrote this, I had not seen the video interview between P, her mother, and School Resource Officer Jessica Weller.  I did see that a week and a half ago.  It didn’t give me much “new” information.  It did show, what I saw, as SRO Weller almost leading the victim at some points and a foregone conclusion of J’s guilt before he was even charged.  I get that this is a child, and some more tender care is needed, but I also believe any officer of the law needs to be objective to a certain degree.  Full disclosure, I actually know P.  My son attended school with her in his earlier years.  She was like most children at that school.  Very quiet at times and very active at lunch and recess.  I also know one of her siblings as I was a paraprofessional in one of her classes for half a year.  While I certainly understand how P may have felt, I don’t believe J directed any of his comments towards her.

The elephant in the room with this whole situation is if J is in need of special education services.  J will be the first to admit he made some inappropriate comments in the classroom that day.  I got to meet him last week, and I could see in his eyes that all he wants is to be back in school with his friends.  He actually wants to go back to Smyrna School District, despite everything that happened to him.  I talked to him about the Muslim religion, and he said he has nothing against it whatsoever.  He never knew P before the first incident in the Home Economics class.  When I left his house that day, I told J I was going to do everything in my power to get him back in the Smyrna School District, and I meant it.

There will be an epilogue of sorts to this series, which may lead to more.  I have many unanswered questions surrounding expulsions and alternative placements.  And after what I wrote yesterday about the Christina School District vendor bid for an alternative school with many abuse allegations between staff and students, I am finding this is an area very worthy of exploration.  I’ve received feedback from many that many of these schools are not worth the money Delaware puts into them.  But that is a story for another day.

In the meantime, the Smyrna School Board of Education is meeting Tuesday night for a meeting about discipline issues.  I don’t know the exact nature of this meeting, but it is my fervent hope they will take a second look at what they have been doing.  While comparing Smyrna to the other 18 school districts in Delaware, I found some startling facts.

Smyrna had the highest percentage of expulsions in the entire state for 2016 school districts.  With close to 1 out of every 200 students expelled from the district, it makes me wonder why Smyrna is the highest percentage out of all the school districts.  They had 24 expulsions.  The next highest number was the Christina School District with 32, but they have three times the number of students.  Red Clay, the largest district, only had 3 expulsions that year.  Indian River had 24 expulsions as well, but they have nearly twice the amount of students as Smyrna.  Districts such as Appoquinimink, Brandywine, and Caesar Rodney had NO expulsions in 2016.  5 of Smyrna’s expulsions last year were from Smyrna Middle School.  Smyrna accounted for nearly 20% of all the expulsions in the State of Delaware in 2016, but they account for 3.8% of Delaware’s public school students.  They hovered around the same kind of expulsion numbers for 2014 and 2015 as well.

In 2014, Smyrna sent 6 out of their 19 expulsions to alternative schools, but that number tripled in 2015 when they sent 18 kids out of 23 expulsions.  In 2016, 18 out of 24 students were sent to alternative schools.  I hate to say it, but that looks like a quota to me.  The Kent County Discipline Alternative Program, which consists of all Kent County school districts, signed a contract with Pathways of Delaware for FY2017.  Pathways of Delaware runs Parkway Academy Central in Dover.  And as Patrik Williams proudly boasted in his Regulation 616 letter to the Delaware DOE, he has frequent contact with that board.  I  have never met Patrik Williams, but given what happened with J as well as what I have heard from several parents, he runs the district with an iron fist and will not tolerate any misbehavior.  J is a classic example of what some may see as bullying from an adult to a student.  I see Williams as the biggest problem in Smyrna when it comes to these issues.  I can’t speak for his other credentials or highlights as an Assistant Superintendent as I have not looked into those.

In researching through various appeals to the State Board of Education, Smyrna had the highest number of appeal requests out of all the school districts.  The State Board of Education actually has another upcoming appeal decision with Smyrna coming up.

I believe, with every fiber of my being, that J should be immediately reinstated back into the Smyrna School District.  He has done his time for a crime that was frivolous on its best day and what can be only seen as railroading on its worst days.  Of which there were many.  I don’t think a student can have “time served” in a situation like this, but I think Patrik Williams and the Smyrna School District Board of Education owe this young man a public apology.  As well, I think they could all use a lesson in perseverance and kindness from him as well.  This should happen at their Board of Education meeting on Tuesday night.  Even if they have to vote on suspending rules to do it if it doesn’t fit their board by-laws.  I would also urge the Board to take a deep look into every expulsion they have served over the years with fresh new eyes.  If there is one thing I can guarantee, there are many fresh new eyes watching you now.

I plan on contacting our legislators over the next six months so all of our school districts have uniform student code of conducts that actually meet the definitions in state code.  It will be a mammoth task, but an important one.  In the case of J, very vague wording can have a tremendous impact.  Especially when administrators want to shoehorn a situation like J’s into a “hate crime” category.  I believe Smyrna School District, under the leadership of Patrik Williams, is going the wrong way with this.  Recent legislation dealing with restorative justice practices are the future, not these archaic throwbacks of old that do more to build the school to prison pipeline than anything else.  If I were any legislator in the boundaries of the Smyrna School District, I would be taking a very close look at this as well, even if you are a firm believer in local control.

What happens in Smyrna School District stays in Smyrna School District is no longer a code to live by.  I encourage all parents to speak out when they see any kind of injustice like what J and his family went through.  Take notes of everything.  Get things in writing.  Even if it is redundant, do it anyway.  Write down every single phone call you make and what the response was.  Do not sign anything until you know what you are signing.  Student code of conducts are very thick.  Go through the whole thing.  If you have questions or concerns, don’t sign it.  Call the Principal and ask away.

When another story gets out, Smyrna is going to have their hands full.  I’m not sure why it hasn’t been “officially” released yet, but it better not be for the reasons I think.  Because that will get very ugly.  Deal with the situation now Smyrna.  Otherwise you are looking at a long stretch of resentment.  For those who might be thinking “this is it, I’m done with Smyrna School District“, don’t count your chickens so fast because there is a big story brewing at Providence Creek Academy as well…

This better be the end of J’s story.  If not, it will get louder.  That I can promise you.

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One thought on “The Smyrna School District Zero Tolerance Pipeline Part 9: Criminal Contempt & Finale

  1. Nice job Kevin. I only disagree at one point: restorative justice has dubious rates of effectiveness and is far more likely to be successful with younger children as they grow up with it then it will be with applied to middle and high school students. I have seen schools run with restorative justice and it’s the good kids suffer because of it. If the legislation is passed it won’t be long before the clown car arrives of experts in restorative justice and they will quickly to send into our districts and charters and start feeding. It for everyone that is actually qualified to do it there are 10 who say they are and fail. While i am anti-zero-tolerance I am pro therapeutic and restorative justice is only one small piece of a toolbox of therapeutic interventions that should be used to discipline children

    Like

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