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Board privately altered expulsion rules

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Wanting to keep student drug, weapon, and bomb threat expulsions out of the public eye, the West Fargo School Board changed its expulsion policy without a public vote, recent e-mails obtained by The Forum show.

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Board members used a series of e-mails between April 8 and April 17 to discuss and vote on the change.

The issue surfaced after five students were caught selling or abusing prescription drugs on April 7 at the high school.

Until recently, the board's policy called for convening a public meeting, holding a hearing in executive session and then emerging as a board to publicly vote on any punishments for actions such as drug or weapons policy violations, or bomb threats.

According to board President Duane Hanson and Superintendent Dana Diesel Wallace, the board now allows the superintendent to privately handle expulsion cases if the family agrees to waive the student's right to a hearing before the board.

The Forum on Tuesday asked the North Dakota attorney general to rule that the e-mails, and the decision that led to the new policy, constitute an illegal meeting and violate state laws.

Hanson on Monday said he wanted the drug case and the student punishments handled quietly by Diesel Wallace in the wake of what he called bad press for a series of expulsions in the last year for bomb threats, drugs and weapons violations.

"I'm just trying to keep us out of the paper," he said.

Hanson and Diesel Wallace both say no "poll" or "vote" was taken of the board. However, the e-mails appear to indicate otherwise.

The matter of whether student expulsions should be handled publicly by the School Board or privately by the superintendent was debated at a March 12 policy subcommittee meeting. But there was no vote to change the district's policy.

On April 7, Diesel Wallace told the board by e-mail that five students had been caught with hydrocodone narcotic analgesics. She said the drugs are part of a class that includes brand names such as Demerol and OxyContin.

Hanson said he called Diesel Wallace after seeing the e-mail to see if the matter could be handled "quite frankly, with less press."

Hanson said he wants the district to be viewed positively.

"Five more kids with drug problems is not a brighter light," he said.

On April 8, in an e-mail sent to all board members, Diesel Wallace ran through the pros and cons of handling the cases administratively, an option discussed at the March 12 policy subcommittee meeting.

The pros mentioned:

- Keeping a negative image out of the media.

- Using board members' time more effectively.

- Leaving the work of day-to-day school issues to administrators.

The cons mentioned:

- Not sending a message via the media about the board's stance on significant disciplinary incidents.

- Not protecting the administration from flak.

- Board members being perceived as uninvolved.

E-mail exchanges on the issue pick up again on April 16, when Executive Assistant Heather Leas e-mailed board members asking them to make their position known on the expulsion policy.

Leas sent board members two follow-up e-mails the next morning.

The first, sent at 8:23 a.m., states, "based on your input, the majority of you feel that we should proceed with expulsion hearings for the five students at the high school involved in distribution and/or receipt of controlled substances."

Leas said Tuesday - and e-mails also indicate - that board members Susan Bailey and Tom Gentzkow were concerned about having the decisions be made outside of a board meeting. But Leas said both Bailey and Gentzkow said giving families of students accused of wrongdoing the option to waive their board hearing was acceptable. Nancy Kruse wanted the system to stay the same.

Leas said Hanson then called to tell her he had contacted the other board members and that a majority wanted Diesel Wallace to handle the cases.

Leas sent out a second e-mail at 9:10 a.m., stating:

"After reading your e-mails more closely, I realized I was erroneous in asking for your availability to schedule hearings, as it seems that the majority would be fine with Dr. Wallace holding the hearings administratively, provided we have the families sign a document waiving their right to be heard before the board."

Hanson said Monday some expulsion cases may be severe enough that they would be handled with a board hearing.

Also Monday, Diesel Wallace said that all five students involved in the drug case received probated expulsions, meaning they must follow a prescribed set of rules to stay in school or they will be expelled. She said she did not have the dates handy of when she acted on each student's case.

The actions were similar to those taken by the board in a separate, but similar, expulsion hearing on March 12, in which three students received probated expulsions.

In an e-mail, Diesel Wallace also wrote the board she recommended the district rewrite the expulsion policy and related policies this summer.

Fargo handles suspensions and expulsions administratively, said district spokesman Lowell Wolff. If an expulsion is contested, the case is then heard by the School Board.

A somewhat more complicated hearing process is involved for students with disabilities, Wolff said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

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