Workable weapon's policy eyed

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Belen school officials want to revise the district's weapon's policy to get rid of stiff, mandatory penalties that interrupt the educational process.

The Belen Board of Education held a workshop last week to discuss adding language to the policy that will allow school officials discretion to determine if a student intended to cause injury or harm when they violated the policy by bringing an actual or look-a-like weapon onto school grounds.

As it stands, a student found guilty of a weapon's violation is automatically expelled from school for no less than one year, unless the superintendent intervenes and suspends the penalty.

That means a 5- or 6-year-old student who brings a look-a-like toy weapon to school faces the same penalty as an 11th-grader who brings a gun to school.

Last year, four elementary students in the district were expelled after bringing toy weapons onto school property.

"If I have a kindergartner who brings a look-a-like gun (to school), I don't have a choice. I've got to look at suspension, with the idea of going to a hearing," said Belen Superintendent Ron Marquez. "And the hearing officer in this case, normally, has no choice either but to look at expulsion for a minimum of one year."

Although Marquez said he usually waives the elementary school student's mandatory minimum sentence, the policy causes unnecessary disruption to the student's education.

"It's been my prerogative to suspend that sentence normally if it's a kindergartner who doesn't even understand the idea of a true weapon and, more importantly, they never threatened anyone with that weapon," he said. "I have allowed them to return to school. But this is usually after a student has already probably missed 10 or 12 days."

The weapons policy is based on the federal Gun-Free Schools Act. Under the Act's guidelines, the district must adopt a gun-free schools position that requires zero-tolerance policies and minimum one-year expulsions from school for gun possession in exchange for federal funds.

Arthur Melendres, the school district's attorney, suggested the board insert the phrase "with the intent to harm or injure" into the policy.

He said adding the new language will allow the district to continue receiving federal funding and allow school officials more options in determining a student's motives when dealing with weapons violations.

"It's subjective now, but I think that the teachers, the principals and the superintendent are able to make a good-faith judgment about when a kid just forgets and has something in his pockets," Melendres said. "There was no intent to harm anyone and therefore (let the student) go back to school. I think we are better off. Kids belong in school, not suspended."

Marquez said many area school district's already have adopted similar language changes that allow for more flexibility to deal with weapons violations, while remaining in good standing with the federal government.

Several school board members support the proposed change but would like to see further language added to consider a system of progressive discipline that includes the parent's involvement, especially for repeat offenders.

"We should let the parents know that this occurred. I think we need to also consider progressive discipline," said Board President Sam Chavez. "If it happens once, I think it was a mistake, but if it happens four, five or six times in a semester, we have a problem. We have a student who doesn't understand or doesn't learn."

School officials also note that the district's rural culture leads to higher occurrence of violating the district's weapon's policy.

For example, some students bring the knives they use to cut hay bales before school, or others have rifles in their cars for a hunting trip.

"Sept. 1 is a very important date, the first day of duck season. I know there are shotguns up in that (Belen High School) parking lot probably locked up in the trunk of cars. They either went duck hunting before school or planning on going after school," Chavez said.

Other proposed changes will grant a school principal's permission to allow students to bring in period-pieces of historical significance for show and tell.

The discussion came just days after two teachers were killed in separate incidents. A 12-year-old boy gunned down a school teacher last Monday in Sparks, Nev., before killing himself, and a 14-year-old boy is accused of stabbing his teacher to death last Wednesday in Danvers, Mass.

The district's attorney will draw up the policy changes for presentation at the next school board meeting.

If the board approves the policy, it will go take effect immediately.