CMS acts reasonably, with one possible exception, after East Meck student arrests

The Observer editorial board

Four students returned to East Mecklenburg high school days after being arrested in a beating incident off-campus
Four students returned to East Mecklenburg high school days after being arrested in a beating incident off-campus Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

On April 29, four East Mecklenburg High School students were charged with beating and inflicting serious injury on a 31-year-old man two days earlier. The injuries, although not life-threatening, were so severe that the man was hospitalized. The incident took place near the school, but off-campus.

Days later, the four students were back at East Meck, prompting a question that confronts school districts across the country: When students commit violent crimes off-campus, should they be allowed back in school? There are no definitive answers, legal or otherwise.

The beating took place at an Independence Boulevard car dealership less than a mile from the school. The four teenagers arrested – Christalsia Harris, 18; Kara Gordon, 17; Jonathan Murphy, 18; and Marquis Hartage, 18 – were back at school last week.

Had the incident taken place on campus or at a school-related activity, officials could easily have justified suspending or expelling the students. As the Observer’s Mark Price reported last week, the CMS student handbook allows for discipline for off-campus crimes, and principals can suspend students if doing so protects other students and preserves an orderly school environment.

Courts have provided some guidelines, allowing schools to suspend or expel students for off-campus behavior, with similar caveats. The behavior either should have a connection to the school (an assault on a fellow student, for example) or would result in a significantly detrimental or disruptive effect on students and teachers.

That leaves a lot of room for interpretation and questions. For example, when does a crime rise to the level of being substantially disruptive to others? While a Massachusetts court upheld the suspension of a high school student for sexually assaulting a 6-year-old off-campus, a New York court said a high school student should be reinstated despite assaulting a woman at her home. The latter crime had no connection to the school, the court ruled.

In the CMS case, records show that the four students had no previous convictions, and students who spoke to the Observer said they felt safe at school despite the presence of the four who were arrested.

CMS school board member Tom Tate told the Observer that the district’s larger aim is to “keep kids in school, not force them out.” CMS police chief Randy Hagler reiterated that as a general policy, children “need to be in school as much as they can.”

We agree. CMS officials seem to have acted reasonably in the East Meck case, with one possible exception. Teachers apparently weren’t briefed about the alleged off-campus crime, despite the arrests being public record. If that’s true, then teachers may have been left unprepared for tension and conflicts that stemmed from the students’ presence.

We hope and expect that CMS officials are keeping a close eye out for such discord. Students are better off learning in class than suspended off-campus, but not to the detriment of others.