Is Public Education a Right?
And can a judge take it away from a student?
Two Oceanway Middle School students were friends, but then came name-calling, hurt feelings — pretty normal stuff for the eighth grade.
That's how Duval County schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti described the situation.
But then it took a serious turn for the worse. Police said one girl lured the other to a store off campus where she beat her up. Investigators said two other girls helped, one by luring the victim to the store and the other by recording what happened on her cellphone. The victim was hospitalized with a skull fracture.
The victim's mother sought an injunction to keep the suspect, who was given a 10-day out-of-school suspension, away from Oceanway Middle School for good, but Circuit Judge Henry Davis banned the 14-year-old from attending any public school in Duval County.
"It's landmark, that's for sure," John Phillips, who represents the victim's mother, told The Florida Times-Union. "When we heard it, it seemed a little much, but I was honored that he went for that."
A little much? That's an understatement.
"It's basically a life sentence for her," said Trey Csar, president of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. "We know that students who aren't in school, the die is cast for them."
"The judge's ruling is unconstitutional," Vitti said. "You can't deny a child a public education."
That's the same thing Vitti said in earlier coverage of the case. Phillips shot back in a Times-Union guest column saying Vitti was more concerned about the bully than the victim.
"Children shouldn't need lawyers, but I guess in Duval County, the bullies don't just lurk in the hallways," Phillips wrote.
"I want to be clear, I, in no way, am justifying or excusing the behavior of the perpetrator," Vitti said.
Phillips wrote "the evidence was clear and uncontradicted that this attacker was a ‘serial bully' who victimized children time and time again."
Vitti said there was no history of reported bullying between the two girls, but Phillips is using the sensitivity surrounding bullying to exaggerate this case and condemn Duval County employees who work to prevent it.
"It's not as if we're throwing up our hands and saying kids are going to be kids," Vitti said. "In this situation, no one dropped the ball."
Bullying is a serious issue and one Vitti said the district is taking steps to combat, such as placing in-school suspension teachers in all middle and high schools, training teachers and parents, revisiting the code of conduct to incorporate a progression of discipline, and increasing the number of guidance counselors.
But it clouds the real issue in this case, which is the right to a public education. Attacking a superintendent for supporting that right is like attacking a supervisor of elections for supporting voting rights.
"One of my responsibilities is to advocate for children," Vitti said. "That's how I view my role as a superintendent."
Public education is for everyone. It's easy to lose sight of this simple fact in the cloud of charter schools and private school vouchers. These selective schools can accept or kick out students whenever they like. But public schools must be there for everyone. Without them, we would see more incarceration and more illiteracy.
"That's the beauty and the beast of public schools: We work with all students," Vitti said.
"We have students who commit heinous crimes, and they're still provided a public education through DJJ [Department of Juvenile Justice]," Vitti said.
Attorney W.C. Gentry said that when he ran for the Duval County School Board, he believed in a zero tolerance policy for students who break the law.
"Then you hear the stories of these children, and it's a different story," said Gentry, who represented District 3 for four years.
He described the case of a child who was a good student but was being terrorized by kids in his neighborhood because he was trying to make something of himself. The child started carrying a gun in his backpack to and from school because he felt threatened. It wasn't loaded, and he didn't intend to harm anyone, but it was found on campus. The district had no choice but to expel him.
"That was one of the hardest decisions I had to make," Gentry said.
That child was allowed to attend an alternative school. In time, he was able to return to a traditional school, although not his original school.
Shouldn't this Oceanway student be given the same opportunity?
"If the attacker went to a different middle school, do we have evidence here or a track record that shows this student would put other students in harm's way?" Vitti asked. "No. There's not enough evidence to say that."
"To prevent a child from a public education is an extreme punishment," Gentry said. But he said he believes Davis was not presented with all of the relevant options.
If the School Board were to consider this case, it might end up expelling the student. It comes up a few times a year, and it's not taken lightly. But even then, the student has options for receiving a public education.
"As a former teacher, as a former principal, as an assistant superintendent, I've had to make tough decisions," Vitti said. "I think one fight is too many fights, but kids have been fighting for years. That doesn't mean they're expelled from school."
"What is the right body to make those types of decisions?" Csar asked. "The School Board elected by the citizenry of Duval County."
You have to protect the student who was attacked and restore order to school. But there are intermediate steps available, which still allow this girl to receive a public education.
Vitti said the suspect, who's criminal case is still pending, is appealing the judge's decision to ban her from Duval County public schools.
"The odds are long for anybody who doesn't have a high school diploma," Csar said, "regardless of the reason."