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Bryan Preston

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December 29, 2010 - 2:33 pm

(See updates at end of article.  For the very latest on this story, go here.)

On its face, this looks like it’s an asinine decision which is probably the product of a culture that makes lawsuits possible in every breath we take.  How else to explain what the school principal has done here?  It’s either the school’s fear of a lawsuit, or a total lack of common sense among the school’s leadership, or there’s something we don’t know about all this that hasn’t shown up in the media reports.  I’m not discounting that third possibility, but based on what we know from media reports, this is indefensible:

An athletic and academic standout in Lee County said a lunchbox mix-up has cut short her senior year of high school and might hurt her college opportunities.

Ashley Smithwick, 17, of Sanford, was suspended from Southern Lee High School in October after school personnel found a small paring knife in her lunchbox.

Smithwick said personnel found the knife while searching the belongings of several students, possibly looking for drugs.

“She got pulled into it. She doesn’t have to be a bad person to be searched,” Smithwick’s father, Joe Smithwick, said.

The lunchbox really belonged to Joe Smithwick, who packs a paring knife to slice his apple. He and his daughter have matching lunchboxes.

“It’s just an honest mistake. That was supposed to be my lunch because it was a whole apple,” he said.

Not only has Smithwick never been in trouble before, she has been taking college courses in advance of her high school graduation, indicating that she’s smart and responsible.  Throw in the soccer skills, and she may be a lock for scholarships, and this suspension with the accompanying media attention obviously jeopardizes that.

News accounts all focus on the school superintendent, Jeff Moss, but by his own statement he didn’t actually make the decision here.  School principal Bonnie Almond, who doesn’t show up in any of the news stories that I ran across, is the decider.

Darla Cole, the chief school resource officer in Lee County, told WRAL News she could not comment on the case.

Lee County Superintendent Jeff Moss told the Sanford Herald that he can’t discuss the specifics of the case, but school policy allows principals to consider the context of each case and determine discipline.

Moss said students who accidentally carry a weapon and report it to teachers will get a light punishment. If teachers find it, he said, the discipline is harsher.

So going by all that and the known facts in this case, if Smithwick had told the searcher about the knife ahead of time she would still have been punished, but lightly.  Mitigating circumstance: Smithwick had no idea that the knife was in her lunchbox.  She was evidently as surprised as anyone when it turned up.  This demands ruining her senior year and jeopardizing her higher ed?

I’ve directly contacted the school principal, seeking an explanation for this decision.  I’ll update when I hear back.  And if I don’t hear back at all, I’ll update with that too.  We’re in the midst of the holidays now, but these folks eventually have to show up for work and deal with what’s been done.  The fact is, this is a public school so the principal is a public servant, and the public has a right to know what is driving this decision.  The superintendent has taken the “my hands are tied” defense off the table.

Perhaps President Obama can call up the school to ask for a second chance…?

Update: I have not yet heard directly from the school principal, Bonnie Almond.  But the superintendent, Jeff Moss, did issue a statement to WRAL TV, denying aspects of the Smithwicks’ side of the story.

Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss said in a statement on Wednesday that the 3-inch-long knife was found in the teen’s purse, not her lunchbox. The search was conducted on Oct. 20 after a faculty member at the school discovered a student on campus with marijuana.

Moss also denied Smithwick’s claim that she was issued a long-term suspension over the incident.

“She is currently enrolled as a student at the school,” Moss said.

Not a bad statement, Mr. Moss, but it doesn’t stand up to much fact-checking.  This photo shows the “purse” in question.

Note the logo on the side: BYO.  A little time with Google reveals that that is a variation of the BYO Rambler Lunch Tote — by definition, a lunchbox, not a purse.  Major retailers such as Office Depot and Kohl’s carry the “stylish alternative to a brown bag,” and obviously they’re available online for about 10 bucks.  So the Smithwicks’ story holds up against Moss’ statement on this point.

As for Mr. Moss’ statement that Miss Smithwick is still enrolled at the school, that’s probably true and also irrelevant.  A student can be enrolled and suspended at the same time.  Iirc, being suspended doesn’t remove a student’s name from the rolls.  It takes expulsion to get a student’s name removed, and all the reports indicate suspension, not expulsion.  The question isn’t whether she’s enrolled, but whether she’s allowed to attend classes, and whether she’s banned from setting foot on campus, as she claims.  Mr. Moss’ statement addresses neither.

As to why the search was conducted in the first place, I hope Mr. Moss isn’t playing games by bringing up the allegation that another student’s being caught with pot triggered the search that led to Smithwick’s suspension.  Catching kids with drugs unfortunately happens frequently on school campuses, triggering searches of other students’ belongings.  That has been true for decades.  It doesn’t speak directly to why Smithwick was suspended, though.

So on the two direct responses Mr. Moss presents in his statement, he loses.  And we still haven’t heard directly from the principal who made this decision at all.  Why?

(hat tip to Bob Owens on the school’s response)

Update: An alert PJM reader was emailed the school district’s press release, and forwarded it to us.  Here it is:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

December 29, 2010

Contact:

Jeffrey C. Moss, Ed.D., Superintendent

_________________________________________________________________

Statement from Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss Regarding Ashley Smithwick

This is in response to the media coverage of the alleged long-term suspension of Ashley Smithwick, a student at Southern Lee High School.  The facts recited by the media are erroneous and without foundation.

On October 20, 2010, a faculty member at Southern Lee High School discovered a student on campus with marijuana.  Based upon information obtained in the interview between school administration and the student in question, a search of several other students, including Miss Smithwick, was promptly conducted.  During this search, a 3-inch paring knife was found on the person of Miss Smithwick in her purse.  The knife was not found in Miss Smithwick’s lunchbox as reported by her family and the media.

Miss Smithwick has not been long-term suspended from Southern Lee High School.  She is currently enrolled as a student at the school.   Over two months after the event it is a mystery to us that the Smithwick’s concerns were not brought to our attention by the family through normal appeal procedures prior to going to the press.

###

I removed direct contact info for Mr. Moss and the district’s public information officer, to minimize their direct harassment.  But this statement doesn’t answer whether Smithwick is allowed to attend school on campus or not.  What does “long-term suspended” mean in the district’s lexicon?  Does it mean a day or two, until the end of the year, for multiple school years, what?  I called up the PIO, but the offices are closed until Monday.  As a former communications director and someone who’s been inside my share of crisis communications myself, I don’t envy that PIO one bit when Monday rolls around.  That’s likely to be a rough day, brought on by the actions of others.  The foremost questions will be, Where is Ashley Smithwick?  And, Do you consider a BYO Rambler Lunch Tote a lunch box or a purse?  Show your work, please.

Update: Crowdsourcing at its finest.  Down in the comments, Neal K draws our attention to this:

A disciplinary contract signed last month by Smithwick, her mother, Southern Lee High Principal Bonnie Almond and Moss states, however, that Smithwick cannot “physically access SLHS campus for the remainder of the 2010-2011 school year.”

That would pretty much destroy the superintendent’s line about her not being suspended.  She is, and there’s a paper trail, and he was engaging in sophistry to argue that she wasn’t.  This also marks the first time Almond’s name has popped up in any MSM report, that I’m aware of.

Also, commenter Matthew points us to this:

Ashley Smithwick has not been able to set foot on campus ever since the incident, however that may soon change. The Board of Education has called an emergency meeting scheduled for Friday morning to discuss her case. (emphasis added)

More corroboration that Miss Smithwick hasn’t been allowed on campus, despite the superintendent’s statement.  And an emergency meeting.  Hm.

I’m off tomorrow for the holiday, but Google Alerts are very useful.

Bryan Preston has been a leading conservative blogger and opinionator since founding his first blog in 2001. Bryan is a military veteran, worked for NASA, was a founding blogger and producer at Hot Air, was producer of the Laura Ingraham Show and, most recently before joining PJM, was Communications Director of the Republican Party of Texas.
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