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Zero tolerance strikes again

Clark County School District: Expel first, questions later

By Joe Schoenmann ( )

[Illustration by Lynne Adamson]

In his fourth-hour class at Woodbury Middle School the day after April Fool's, Joseph K was doing the work of any 14-year-old Clark County School District student when Principal Joseph Murphy summoned him to the hallway.

Joseph K., not his real name, had no idea what was up. Maybe the A/B student was being recognized for his outstanding grades? Maybe he'd received another award for his devotion to the Boy Scouts?

Before his teen-aged mind had time to process the fact that the principal wasn't alone, three school police officers turned him around and slapped on the handcuffs.

It would be three more days before Joseph K. or his grandparents would learn specifically why he'd been arrested, and 10 more days before he'd be allowed to return home.

Now, more than two months later, Joseph K. and his grandparents are all in professional counseling--his grandmother broke down in tears during an interview two weeks ago--to deal with the recurring nightmares and sleepless nights. Joseph K. has never been allowed back into school, and was formally expelled recently.

But that's not the worst of it, his grandparents say. What's worse is that the school district has forever labeled their grandson. During his expulsion hearing, district officials said Joseph K. fits the "profile" of a potentially violent student: He's well-groomed, gets good grades and is well liked.

In other words, a menace to society.


Days after Joseph K. was kicked out of the eighth grade, one of his teachers addressed his former classmates, looking at the empty desk Joseph K. usually occupied. "Be careful what you say, or someone you know might not be here anymore."

But neither Joseph K. nor his grandparents understand how something he said at home to a couple of flirtatious girls could have led to his arrest, jailing and expulsion from school.

It was March 30, about 11:30 p.m., when Joseph K. got the phone call that changed his young life. Two girls from Chaparral High School, one of them an acquaintance, called to ask him out on a date, of sorts: Would he escort them to the 7-Eleven to hang out? It didn't take him long to answer: "I didn't want to hang out," he recalls, "It was late." The girls then put him on hold. He waited patiently. Some 15 minutes later, they got back on the phone, and Joseph K. was a little steamed.

"I said, 'It's people like you who get on the Columbine lists,'" he recalls. His reference was to the now-infamous April 1999 killing of 13 at Columbine High School in Colorado by students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.

He had no idea that the school-shooting reference would stir police to action.


To learn about the type of investigation school police conducted to justify Joseph K.'s arrest, Las Vegas Weekly made an Open Records request for police reports. To protect the identities of juveniles involved, the paper asked that their names be blackened out. Sgt. Ken Young, school police spokesman, said school lawyers had not finished reviewing the reports before the Weekly's deadline. Young offered a synopsis of the police investigation.

"The kids started reporting to administration, and we started getting information from administrators at Chaparral and Woodbury," Young said. "And (Joseph K.) had some other issues he was dealing with."

Those "issues" might have had something to do with the fact that Joseph K. has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a condition treated with prescription drugs. Since being treated, his grandparents say, his grades have skyrocketed from Fs and Ds to As and Bs. And after a court ruling 13 years ago, Joseph K.'s grandparents became his legal guardians.

But Joseph K.'s medical condition isn't what sealed his fate with police. Columbine did. Young was very open about the state of mind of the Clark County School District and its police department during the month of April.

"This was leading up to the Columbine time," Young said, referring to April 20, the two-year anniversary of the Colorado shooting. "So any type of rumor, any kinds of threats of joking, jestering or kidding, we were following up on. This was one of those cases. If the kid makes any type of threat with a weapon, and he has access, whether (it) belongs to the parent in the home or not, they are automatically taken into custody."

School police also found in Joseph K.'s locker and backpack more "evidence:" a class report he'd been writing about the Holocaust, which included sketches of Nazi symbols. Also taken was an essay he'd written for another class, answering the question: What's the biggest problem facing schools today? Joseph K.'s essay focused on school violence.

After questioning the teen -- Is he depressed? Did he have a "list?" Did he hate anyone? -- police took him to his grandparent's house, grandpa signed a consent form specifically letting them search Joseph K.'s room, according to the grandfather. They not only searched the kid's room, including his computer files and email, they also went through grandpa's closet, where they found his shotgun. They took it and the boy's BB-gun.

"We're thinking at the time that he did something real stupid in school, and they're going to punish him somehow," grandpa says, explaining why he didn't oppose the search When grandpa asked what the boy was being charged with, police replied: "You'll get a call," and took the teen away.


During a family court hearing the next day, Joseph K. and his grandparents were only told that the teen was being charged with "harassment." They received no paperwork detailing what prompted the charges: They weren't even allowed to have a copy of the paper that listed "harassment" as the charge.

Sgt. Young says the boy was deemed a "habitual disciplinary problem," a term defined by the state Legislature two years ago to mean anyone who "threatened or extorted, or attempted to threaten or extort, another pupil or (school employee)" in a year's time. By state law, a student who has never had a problem before can be deemed a "habitual" troublemaker with one erroneous act (Las Vegas Weekly, May 17, "Caught in the Crosshairs").

None of that came up in court. Sylvia Beller, the juvenile special hearing master, refused to release Joseph K. to his grandparents until he'd been evaluated by county psychologists. The teen got out a week later. He couldn't return to Woodbury--he first had to wait for the district's Pupil Personnel Services to schedule an expulsion hearing. But in the meantime, Woodbury gave him an award for being a good student: He got a "Smart Card" for his efforts. He appreciated it almost as much as the one he got while taking classes in the juvenile jail.

To say Joseph K. got an education during his 10 days in jail would be a grave understatement. He says he saw teens strapped in chairs, as punishment, for what seemed like days on end. And every time his grandparents visited, he was strip-searched--anally and under his scrotum. "I was trying to make the best of it," he says, sheepishly recalling the searches.

His grandparents weren't so calm. "You think it's going to go away, because it's so ridiculous," says Grandpa, his face turning red. "You expect any day a call from the police saying it was a big mistake. They never did."

Some of it went away June 6, when Beller dismissed all charges. (The teen's grandparents marveled at Beller's decision, especially since Mike Gardner, Joseph K.'s Clark County public defender, told them he wanted Joseph K. to plead to lesser charges.)

Despite the court's dismissal, the school district went ahead and formally kicked Joseph K. out of school for one quarter on June 13. It was during his expulsion hearing that Joseph K. and his grandparents were told that his "type" -- well-groomed, good students who are well liked -- fit the profile of kids who shoot up schools. No one from Pupil Personnel Services returned calls for comment from Las Vegas Weekly. Last week, Joseph K. enrolled at the so-called Washington Opportunity School, a series of prison-like trailers at Lake Mead Boulevard and White Drive.


Though juvenile crime rates had been falling long before Columbine (the percentage of students reporting that they were victims of crime fell from 10 percent in '95 to 8 percent in '99), school paranoia, here and around the country, is on the rise. During April alone, Young said, there were more than 20 arrests in the school district.

"We were chasing down rumors for what seemed like the whole month," said the sergeant. "It was ridiculous."

It's all part of what Allen Lichtenstein, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, calls the district's "zero intelligence," rather than "zero tolerance," policy.

"We're talking about insanity and it just gets worse and worse," said Lichtenstein. "What it's really all about is insurance and liability and the school district saying, 'hey, no one can ever accuse us of anything.' So zero tolerance equalling zero intelligence is really the key."

A block from Woodbury Middle School at Joseph K.'s home, grandpa is still waiting to get his shotgun back, and his grandson is facing new dangers at Opportunity School, which his grandfather describes as situated in a neighborhood infested with gangs.

And still, there's disbelief.

"What have I learned?" grandpa says, looking down, shaking his head, "God, this can happen to anybody's kid. Anybody's. And how many more times is it happening that we never hear about?"


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