Washington schools returning expelled students

BREMERTON, Wash. — Although it has been nearly a year since Anne Becker’s son was expelled from a Kitsap County private school, the pain still is raw.

Harrison Becker was 11 in March, when a confrontation with another student provoked a verbal threat from Harrison that the School Board took as credible. As Harrison explained the swiftness of the punishment and its permanence, his mom choked up.

“I felt a little sad, since I couldn’t even visit my friends,” Harrison said. “It was so sudden that I couldn’t even say goodbye.”

Anne admits the comment was out of line. Harrison wrote an apology, and he is seeing a counselor for help navigating the turbulent ‘tweens.

But his mom questions the punishment’s severity. The Beckers tried to get the expulsion mitigated, but the board stood firm. Now, how would they continue Harrison’s education?

“As a parent, you’re just kind of thrown into the unknown without a safety net,” Anne said. “I think decisions are being made, and I don’t feel that people making those decisions are fully aware of what the families have to go through as a result.”

The impact of expulsions and suspensions on students and their families is far reaching, according Katie Mosehauer, principal author of a 2012 report on student discipline in Washington state. The report was compiled by two youth advocacy organizations, TeamChild and Washington Appleseed, where Mosehauer is a data analyst.

Students indefinitely removed from school have trouble continuing their education through other methods, fall behind in their studies and often drop out of school, the report shows.

In Kitsap and North Mason counties, at least 10,121 days of public school were missed in 2012-13 because of long- and short-term suspensions, according Washington Appleseed. The number might be higher, because schools don’t count days out for expulsion, Mosehauer said.

School districts must give due process to students who are suspended or expelled, and that includes informing them of their options while out of school. But confusion, lack of understanding and in some cases dysfunction can prevent families from hearing critical information about educational services to which their children are entitled.

The Beckers and other families who spoke to the Kitsap Sun about their children’s expulsions said they felt cut loose by the education system, unsure where to turn next.

On Feb. 22, 2012, a 9-year-old boy brought a handgun to Armin Jahr Elementary School. In class, the gun discharged while in the boy’s backpack, critically wounding an 8-year-old girl whose health remains compromised, according to the family’s spokeswoman.

The boy pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment in Kitsap County Superior Court and underwent a year of court supervised probation with other conditions.

For one year, he also was barred from attending Bremerton schools, said his uncle and guardian Patrick Cochran. Other districts in the area would not take the boy, his uncle said, and when he asked whether the Bremerton School District would help him home-school his nephew, the answer was “no.”

Bremerton school officials declined to comment on his case.

“They’re in limbo,” Mosehauer said of students who are expelled. “There’s nothing in case law that says it’s required to educate these kids.”

Districts now have to make return-to-school plans with students and their families, under a new law that went into effect this school year.

Through the boy’s probation officer, the family connected with Patti Sgambellone, an education advocate for Olympic Educational Service District 114. The position, grant funded since 2009, allows Sgambellone, a drug and alcohol counselor, to help families of troubled students find education resources while they’re out of school.

“There’s kind of a deep hole where kids can get lost,” Sgambellone said. “It can be a real stumbling block for kids like that who are looking at long-term suspension. It can be really overwhelming to parents. We can help walk them through the details.”

Two volunteers, a retired teacher and a high school student from Kingston, offered to tutor Cochran’s nephew. The teacher coordinated with the Bremerton School District so the boy stayed on track academically.

“She’s an incredible lady,” Cochran said. “She was everything for us.”

The high school student helped with homework and became the boy’s mentor, taking him golfing and on other outings.

Cochran was moved by the educational support his family received, in part from publicity surrounding the shooting. The tutoring did more than educate the boy, he said. It helped ground the family during his year of expulsion after the highly publicized shooting.

“It kind of brought some sense of normalcy, as close as you could get at the time,” Cochran said. “We got really lucky.”

Cochran says ultimately it’s up to families to advocate for their children.

“You’ve got to find help wherever you can,” Cochran said. “You just can’t sit back and wait for it.”

The Beckers found help through friends who home-school and through Central Kitsap School District’s off-campus program. Anne feels “blessed” that she can stay home and focus on Harrison’s education. She wonders about families where that’s not possible.

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