An arbitrator has ruled that the expulsion of Shaker Heights High School Sophomore Isaac Richmond, who filmed an altercation between two female students on his phone on March 19, was excessive and unwarranted. Richmond will return to class Monday, May 12, to the relief of parents (and some teachers) who have increasingly come to view new 34-year-old Superintendent Gregory Hutchings as an egomaniac with something to prove.
Isaac Richmond isn't Dr. Hutchings' first sacrificial lamb who has successfully appealed his sacrifice. On April 22, Channel 5 reported that Shaker Heights Sophomore Josh Lugo-Ortiz, a strong student who'd been expelled for picking up a homemade knife that his friend had brought to school -- "Curiosity got the best of me," Lugo-Ortiz admitted -- would be allowed to return to class on May 19, sooner than the prescribed 45-day expulsion.
Lugo-Ortiz's attorney, Todd Kotler, told WEWS that the school had every right to keep its students safe, but "where they became overzealous" was punishing his client to prove a point. Kotler said he hoped the situation would foster a conversation about school policies.
School policy was at the root of the appeal in Isaac Richmond's case as well. Richmond filmed a fight on an electronic device, and though technically the student handbook prohibits the use of such devices, "unless otherwise instructed by a staff member," Richmond's mother Karen Trumbo said students use them all day long. Any high school teacher will tell you the same, despite their efforts to keep kids off their phones.
"They do surveys in class, they look up words," Trumbo told Scene in a phone interview. "They send pictures of their food to Michelle Obama. That's what they do. I told Hutchings, 'The kids are way ahead of us.'"
Trumbo said that her son has been instructed not to post videos like that to social media, but he did forward it to a friend, a senior on the basketball team. He also shared the video with a Shaker Heights police officer who works undercover at the high school for security. That officer, who asked to remain nameless, told Scene that because there are no cameras in the classrooms, Richmond's video may in fact be used as official evidence in a court of law. He also confirmed that when security guards see students with phones in the hall, they tell them to put them away and that's generally the end of it.
Trumbo said that sensible policies regarding students' devices haven't been made clear.
"Isaac didn't even know he did anything wrong," said Trumbo. "If they would've asked him to delete the video, he would have." She said she finds it problematic that Dr. Hutchings called an emergency meeting for faculty after the altercation but never held an assembly for the students to review rules and expectations.
"This should have been a teaching moment," she said. Instead, he was expelled.
Trumbo also contended that the initial hearing for her son was a sham, as Hutchings had already indicated to the "Shakerite," a hyper-local news outlet, that he'd be recommending expulsion for the videographers as well as the combatants.
Hutchings, who most recently worked "in a position equivalent to an assistant superintendent" in Alexandria, Virginia, was unavailable Monday and Tuesday for an interview. Shaker Heights Schools' Director of Communications Peggy Caldwell responded by phone to say that as a matter of policy, they don't discuss individual disciplinary procedures publicly. She provided the portion of the student handbook which pertains to use of electronic devices.
"If a student uses a cell phone or other electronic device during the school day without authorization," the handbook read, "it may be confiscated and held in the office until claimed by a parent/guardian."
Hutchings' version: "If a student uses a cell phone one more fucking time, he/she will either be expelled or sentenced to 48 hours in the goddamn stocks."
Todd Kotler cited two studies (one from the American Psychological Association and one from a family law journal) that argue persuasively that zero-tolerance policies like Hutchings' aren't effective methods to rehabilitate and reform misbehaving children. Kotler, along with Trumbo, felt that punishments should be commensurate with the infraction.
Scene agrees. Confiscating a phone when you're not supposed to be using it sounds fair. Expelling high-performing students for a first-time, non-violent offense seems like the most egregious crime of all. But so it goes in the fiefdoms of over-aggressive, power-hungry superintendents.