Editorial: A just ending to Barrington school legal case

Posted 2/8/20

The Barrington School Committee deserves credit for stepping in and ending the school district’s nearly two-year legal battle with one of its own students.By dropping its Superior Court suit …

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Editorial: A just ending to Barrington school legal case

Posted

The Barrington School Committee deserves credit for stepping in and ending the school district’s nearly two-year legal battle with one of its own students.

By dropping its Superior Court suit against both a teenager and the Rhode Island Department of Education, the district spared this boy’s family further anxiety, stress and embarrassment in a case that never should have gone as far as it did.

In the beginning, it seemed that Barrington Middle School was doing the right thing to protect its students. Alerted that a group of boys had been talking about shooting up their school two years ago, officials acted swiftly — as all parents would hope.

They worked with police officers and their own internal teams to question the boys, gather information and quickly determine there was no real threat to the school, students or staff. But that’s where things got sloppy.

They questioned 13-year-olds with an armed police officer without notifying parents. They misled parents regarding the severity of the incident and the veracity of the investigation. They suspended four of the students even after determining there was no threat. They took months to document why the boys were suspended, at one point citing handbook policies that did not exist.

As the details of the case became public, it became clear that these boys were being made examples of, for the rest of the student body. These were harsh, zero-tolerance penalties, so that everyone knew you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater (or talk about school shooting tactics in a crowded cafeteria).

But schools today aren’t supposed to be what they once were, with the stern vice principal and his clipboard walking the halls and kicking out the unruly kids when they misbehave. Schools today aspire to something better.
Today they know that the best way to teach, inspire and connect with kids is to build relationships, with both the student and the family. They know that kicking kids out of school isolates them, humiliates them and potentially ostracizes them from peers (and the parents who tell their own children, “I don’t want you hanging out with him anymore”).

The middle school team and the district botched this one, and the parents of one boy challenged them. Those parents should be applauded for taking a stand and defending their son. They, the ACLU, the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education all agreed — what happened to these boys was not fair.

In a stunning turn last fall, the school district decided to keep fighting this case and filed a legal challenge in Rhode Island Superior Court. Though some school officials argued that the press was sensationalizing, the case was filed, quite literally, as the school district vs. the student and his family. The optics were bad, and so was the reality.

As news spread, the community reacted strongly, with somewhat rare criticism for a school district that is rightly upheld as the finest in Rhode Island. And as time went on, school committee members listened, too.

Rather than continue to be led by their hired attorneys, who it seemed were always in charge of this case and where it went, school committee members stepped in and asserted themselves. Several weeks ago they directed the administration to stand down, voting unanimously to dismiss the case and instead seek an advisory opinion from the state.

So kudos to a group that has taken a lot of heat lately. The school committee did the right thing in the end, and this boy can move on to being a normal high school student again.

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.