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Classroom to courtroom

Michael Smith
msmith@ardmoreite.com
The Ardmore City Schools Administration Building in a September 2019 photo. New disciplinary options approved by the school board last week could result in students receiving municipal citations, but details about the adjudication process for minors remain unclear.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional information from Ardmore police about how citations would be issued on campus.

A week after the Ardmore City School Board of Education approved a school violence prevention program, the program’s origins or just how much violators would be accountable for remain unclear. School officials said the disciplinary options were developed by individuals within the local justice system but at least one local official denies involvement.

Furthermore, a review of Ardmore city code shows discrepancies between maximum fines allowed and fines that could be imposed on students.

Last Tuesday, the school board approved the program at the request of the Ardmore High School principal as an effort to address drug use and violence on campus. Ardmore City Schools Superintendent Kim Holland on Friday said that the program gives more disciplinary options beyond a suspension of students for violations.

“All we’re trying to do is teach our children to act in a more appropriate way and to keep them in school,” Holland said.

DEFINING OFFENSES

According to a document provided by school officials, certain acts of violence, abuse or drug possession can be subject to fines under city code: fighting that is not considered self-defense could be subject to a citation for disturbing the peace; cursing or swearing at school personnel could result in a citation for being a public nuisance; possession or use of marijuana on school property could result in a citation for possession of a controlled dangerous substance.

That same document also lists the fine amount associated with each code violation. Disturbing the peace and public nuisance fines are set at $260. A fine for possession of a controlled dangerous substance could start at $460 but could jump to $520 if THC, the chemical found in marijuana that produces a high, is present.

Holland and Ardmore High School Principal James Meece both said that the municipal court system would handle fine collection or appeals once a citation was issued. Meece said immediately after Tuesday’s school board vote that punitive measures have been effective disciplinary options in the past that have reduced the frequency of on-campus fights and drug possession.

DISCREPANCIES IN FINE AMOUNTS

According to the document provided by the school, which has also been cited by other media outlets, the fine totals associated with each citation were set by the city. However, most fine amounts are higher than what is actually allowed by city code. If a code violation does not have a specific penalty, “the maximum fine shall not exceed seven hundred and fifty dollars ($750.00) and costs,” according to Chapter 1, Section 4 of Ardmore city code.

Public nuisance, with multiple definitions and examples in city code, does not have a specific penalty amount and would be subject to the $750 limit set by city code. However, someone cited for disturbing the peace “shall be punished by a fine of up to Two Hundred Dollars ($200.00) plus court costs or by imprisonment for up to thirty (30) days,” according to Chapter 19 of Ardmore city code. Similarly, a person cited for violating city code regarding controlled dangerous substances “shall be punished by a fine of up to Five Hundred Dollars ($500.00) plus court costs,” according to city code.

Holland said late Monday that when the school board approved the program to give teachers an additional disciplinary option, it did not necessarily vote to approve the amount of fines. He said he would investigate further how numbers provided to the board were calculated. “If they’re wrong, I’ll have to go back to the city and ask them to correct it.”

DEVELOPING THE OPTIONS

Along with uncertainty regarding fine amounts, the origins of the program remain unclear. When asked about the program’s beginnings last week, school officials suggested multiple players were involved.

“It’s definitely a joint effort between us, the city, and the district attorney’s office, so if any one of those groups say ‘well, we’re not going to honor this anymore’ then it would be over,’” Holland said on Friday. District Attorney Craig Ladd was asked about the program later on Friday and said his office does not deal with the municipal court system and that he did not have a role in developing the program.

When asked about the program again on Monday, Holland said that the school district actually worked with an assistant district attorney on a truancy program. He also clarified that he was not directly involved with the development of the new disciplinary options.

Meece said last week that he worked with a city judge and Ardmore police Capt. Paul White to develop the program. In an email from Ardmore Police Department Deputy Chief Kevin Norris on Tuesday, non-traffic citations issued to juveniles are classified as a complaint. If a misdemeanor crime occurs and an officer is not a witness, a school representative would have to sign the complaint that accompanies a police report.

“Everyday police officers use their discretion on whether or not misdemeanor crimes are filed through the Municipal Court system or with the District Attorney’s office,” Norris said. “[H]aving that option of filing it through the Municipal Court system will help all parties involved,” he said, adding that filing the complaint with a city judge does not necessarily result in a juvenile record. Filing complaints with a city judge also reduces any extra burden placed on Oklahoma Office of Juvenile Affairs, which typically deals with more serious crimes committed by a minor.

Multiple attempts to reach Municipal Judge Julie Austin for comment on the fine totals provided to school board members or alternative punishments available to violators have been unsuccessful.

DISCIPLINARY GUIDELINES AND ALTERNATIVES

State education officials declined to comment on the Ardmore school violence prevention program and said disciplinary options are mostly left up to individual school districts. Dr. Shelly Ellis is the director of the Oklahoma State Department of Education division of student support and said the department is working to provide educators with information on how some students learn and behave on campus.

“A lot of the trainings we do are around trauma-informed work,” Ellis said. SDE Superintendent Joy Hofmeister formed the division of student support nearly two years ago in an effort to address childhood trauma in students. Ellis said five regional training seminars will be provided free to teachers later this spring to help identify trauma that could have been inflicted for a variety of reasons, whether a dire financial situation, abuse, or neglect.

“Something that we do talk about are restorative justice practices, and that’s a different approach to school discipline,” Ellis said, referring to the practice of providing violators an option to remedy a problem alongside victims and school officials. She said evidence-based options like restorative justice practices can be provided to schools if it is requested.

Office of Juvenile Affairs communications director Michael McNutt said his office will only get involved if a criminal case against a minor in Oklahoma has been adjudicated. “OJA doesn’t deal with municipal courts,” he said on Thursday. While OJA may take custody of minors who are currently navigating or have completed court proceedings, schools do not directly refer students to OJA for discipline.

WHAT IS ALREADY IN PLACE

The student handbook for the current school year outlines disciplinary options available to Ardmore High School educators which includes in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension, and even the involvement of law enforcement. While discretion seems to be ultimately given to

Holland, he said he is unaware of a teacher being prevented from pressing charges against a student if a crime has been committed. “I honestly don’t think I could stop a teacher from filing a claim with the police department if a kid were to be abusive,” he said.