Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Discipline debate causes stir in IASD

by CHAUNCEY ROSS chauncey@indianagazette.net on March 23, 2013 11:00 AM

The pending school disciplinary action against seven Indiana Area Senior High School students charged with underage drinking while on a school-related trip earlier this month has spawned a pair of dueling online petitions aimed at influencing the students’ punishment.

The petitions have been set up on the www.change.org website — one calls for the board of school directors to consider the students’ overall personal accomplishments and to be lenient in dispensing discipline; the other calls for the board to follow the letter of the district’s student behavioral guidelines and to give no special treatment.

The youths, according to police in Derry Township, Dauphin County, “did purchase, possess, consume, attempt purchase or knowingly or intentionally transport any liquor or malt or brewed beverages” at 11:56 p.m. Saturday, March 9, in Hershey Lodge.

The Pennsylvania District of Key Club International that weekend hosted its District Convention/Leadership Conference at Hershey Lodge and Convention Center.

Online court records show summary citations were filed March 12 before District Judge Dominic Pelino and were mailed to the students at their homes in Indiana.

Those charged are Mason Douglas Lockard, 18, of Quincy Circle; Nicholas Scott Bizousky, 18, of White Oak Drive; Jacob Williamson-Rea, 18, of Chestnut Street; three 17-year-old boys; and a 16-year-old boy. The Indiana Gazette does not routinely publish the names of juveniles accused of crimes.

The four juvenile suspects pleaded not guilty to the charges on March 13, and are scheduled to appear for a summary trial April 18 in Pelino’s court in Hummelstown, online court records show. Online court records showed no response to the citations filed against Lockard, Bizousky and Williamson-Rea as of press time today.

Derry Township police declined to comment on the nature of the incident that resulted in the summary citations. Officers refused to say whether their investigation would lead to any additional charges.

The school district’s Attendance, Behavioral Guidelines and Discipline Policy, a handbook distributed to all students each year, classifies alcohol with other drugs and lists possessing, furnishing, consuming or being under the influence as Level IV offenses.

Level IV is the most serious level of offense in the district. Examples of Level IV offenses, according to the student handbook, are extortion, bomb threats, harassment of staff, “serious” assault, hazing, vandalism, theft, arson and inappropriate use of prescribed or over-the-counter drugs, and using/furnishing/selling/possession/(being) under the influence of alcohol or controlled substances. The prohibition against drugs and alcohol in the handbook applies to field trips, athletic contests and other school events.

Possible disciplinary measures for Level IV offenses include suspension, expulsion, criminal prosecution or other board or administrative action, according to the handbook.

The case has drawn attention among the student body, in social networks and according to email messages to the Gazette because of a belief that the youths have already been or imminently will be expelled from school.

School board President Thomas Harley and other board members deflected questions about the incident and would not discuss whether the matter has come before them. District Superintendent Dale Kirsch only quoted information on the discipline policy published in the student handbook, and said that the board and administration keep details of student discipline issues confidential.

With the specter of possible expulsion looming over those charged, students at the school have rallied to their defense, some wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Let Them Learn.”

The students shouldn’t be expelled because they get good grades, play sports, hold jobs and serve the community, according to the petition organized by high school senior Alexia Akbay.

“Yes, they made a poor decision. They did not use their better judgment or consider the consequences. IASD has made an even poorer decision by interrupting their educational careers when it means the most,” Akbay wrote in the preface to the petition.

The comment section on the Web page includes remarks from supporters who say the school board has no authority to sanction the youths, and that other students accused of offenses such as theft and drug possession have received punishment less severe than expulsion.

Launched early this week, the petition (http://chn.ge/ZEvT04) has been publicized on Facebook and through links circulated in mass email messages to the Indiana community. The emails were distributed by Romeo’s Pizza and Mediterranean Restaurant, which is owned by Akbay’s parents.

One of those charged, Williamson-Rea, identifies himself as an employee of Romeo’s on his Facebook page.

Williamson-Rea declined to comment on the case; Akbay did not respond to a request to comment on the petition effort.

The petition had garnered 774 signatures through this morning.

A counter-petition (http://chn.ge/16N8ZYN) expressing support for the school board’s decision to expel the students — although no action has been taken — has been posted by Katie Kowalski Little, a 2004 graduate of Indiana Area Senior High School who lives with her husband at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Little said the school board should uphold its published policy and not yield to pressure from a group of students.

“Yes, these students are revered as ‘outstanding’ students, as they receive good grades, are in sports and numerous clubs. However, if they were truly outstanding they would not have been drinking while representing their school they supposedly hold dear to provide them an education,” Little wrote.

Little and a supporter who signed the petition said the students knew the consequences of underage drinking and should accept their punishment rather than try to avoid the sanctions and change the system.

The petition was posted Wednesday and had fewer than 10 signatures as of this morning.

Under the district’s discipline policy, expulsion can only be imposed by a vote of the school board at a public meeting — on a motion that typically identifies the offenders by numbers, not by their names — but after considering evidence and testimony at a closed-door hearing.

At the school board’s only meeting since the incident, on March 11, no disciplinary measures appeared on the agenda or were presented for the directors’ consideration.

District officials and board members said no disciplinary measures have been discussed at public committee meetings and no action was taken in any executive sessions since the charges came to light. The board’s next public meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Monday.

The school board’s agenda for Monday, which was posted online Friday, shows the directors will consider a motion to hire an attorney to represent the administration in expulsion hearings. No other details about the matter appear on the agenda.

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