Parents challenge charter school’s fairness
by Staff Writer
HUNTERSVILLE – Accompanied by more than a dozen supporters, a Davidson couple confronted the Lake Norman Charter School board June 9, accusing school officials of using unfair, vague disciplinary procedures to intimidate students and their parents.
Their son had been accused of having marijuana on a school trip.
The couple also accused school General Manager Tim Riemer of applying disciplinary rules differently earlier this year for the son of a school administrator charged by Huntersville police with bringing a stun gun to school.
Neither Riemer nor any of the trustees responded to the parents’ statement at the June 9 meeting. The Herald Weekly sent emails to Riemer and all members of the board of directors, asking for comment on the couple’s criticism of the school’s policies. In an email response, Board Chairwoman Tricia Sisson said she could not respond to allegations involving any student “unless the parents give us written permission.”
But she did dispute, in general, the parents’ criticism of disciplinary policies. (See related article).
“Our educators and administrators seek long-term suspension and/or exclusion only when a serious Level III violation of our Student Conduct Code occurs,” she wrote. “They should not, and do not, do so when their evidence is weak. Accordingly, I think the parents who have withdrawn their students prior to a hearing have reviewed the evidence and realized that a reasonable person would find the student was guilty of committing a Level III offense and would have to face the consequences of their actions. I am confident that our policies regarding student conduct and hearing rights are being applied fairly to all students at Lake Norman Charter.”
Sisson did not address the treatment of the administrator’s child charged by police with bringing the stun gun to school, a Level III offense, the highest level of offenses in the school’s code of conduct.
In an earlier email to all members of the board, the parents of the eighth-grader who withdrew from school said they “have been some of the school’s best supporters,” serving as volunteers and team parents. The woman said she had chaired several committees.
“I get asked by many parents every year how I like” Lake Norman Charter School, the woman wrote. “Now when asked, I will no longer be able to give the school a good recommendation. My warning will be to stay away. I think the harsh treatment and unfair disciplinary policies affect the students at the school. Even if your child never falls under the harsh punishment, it does affect them.
“It is a small school, and they are all friends, and when a friend or teacher is removed suddenly and possibly under unfair circumstances, it is traumatic to everyone. Please review your policies and consider making changes. Consider education, consider mentoring and consider anything but what you are doing right now.”
The Herald is not naming the couple to protect the identity of their son who was not charged with a crime. The school suspended the boy for 10 days and recommended him for further discipline, possibly expulsion. The couple said the school stopped further threat of discipline and promoted the boy to ninth grade when the couple agreed to withdraw him from the school and drop any legal action.
The couple’s presentation is the latest in a series of public statements accusing Riemer personally of bullying students, parents and employees of the 1,600-student school at 12435 S. Old Statesville Road. The Herald has published several unsolicited letters from former employees and parents of students criticizing Riemer’s tactics and the board for supporting him.
The incident that led to the couple’s appearance before the board began the night of May 4 during an eighth-grade field trip to a conference center in the Asheville area. In their email to the charter school board, the couple said they have pieced together the following facts:
A student in a third-floor room had hidden an item in ceiling tiles, which fell inside the wall. The student cut a hole in the wall to get the item, and after school officials learned of the damage, they began searching for the knife.
Officials eventually found it in a couch on the first floor, but in the meantime, they asked a number of students, including the couple’s son, about the knife. In the end, school officials held the boy five hours for questioning, and he gave officials permission to search his room “because he knew he had no illegal items with him on the trip,” his mother wrote.
“He asked repeatedly why he was being held and asked repeatedly that they call his parents,” his mother wrote. “Neither request was granted. He was made to urinate in front of a teacher and not allowed to speak during those five hours.”
The couple finally learned of the incident when a Buncombe County sheriff’s deputy called. The deputy said school officials found “a small amount of marijuana … in a pill bottle” in the ceiling tiles of the boy’s room. He shared the room with another student, and none of the students could lock their rooms, the parents learned.
The deputy said he was not going to charge anyone in the incident because “he was not comfortable with the search performed by the school,” and he recommended the couple come get their son.
Thirty minutes later, Assistant Principal Mike McAlpin called to say their son would be suspended and could not come back to school “until someone from the school called us with formal charges,” the woman wrote. “He would answer no questions about what happened or why (her son’s) room was searched or who had told him to look in the bathroom ceiling tiles.”
On the way home, the couple’s son asked to take a drug test for marijuana and said school officials should dust the pill bottle for fingerprints. The boy passed a test for six substances “at a legal drug-testing facility,” and the director of the facility said the test showed their son could not have smoked marijuana for at least 30 days.
Though the couple provided the drug test results, school officials refused to dust the pill bottle for fingerprints, the woman said.
Five days later, McAlpin informed the woman of her son’s 10-day suspension and referral “for further discipline,” including possible expulsion.
“He still would not share any details about what had happened, and when I expressed my anger at this, he told me I could appeal the suspension,” she wrote. “… I requested the policy on disciplinary hearings, as we could find absolutely no documentation on this in any of the school’s handbooks. Mr. McAlpin told me that this could not be given to us. … I eventually had to go to the board to get information.”
At a May 16 hearing, the student gave his side, and his parents presented the negative drug test, expecting “to have a discussion about the course of events that led to the search of (their son’s) room. We were then astounded when Mr. McAlpin told us that ‘under the advice of the school’s lawyer,’ they would share no details about the accusations made against” their son.
McAlpin and Principal Michelle Harrison also would not say who searched the room or offer the evidence collected. “We, frankly, could not tell you if it even ever existed,” the teen’s mother wrote “… It is hard to defend your child with absolutely no information.”
Within a few hours, the couple learned Harrison and McAlpin had denied their appeal, and their son would be scheduled for a hearing before Riemer on May 26.
“Over a year ago, my husband and I sat in Tim Riemer’s office, and he told us that no one has ever won a hearing” at Lake Norman Charter, the woman wrote. “… We requested a different officer, but this was denied.”
By this time, the couple had retained a lawyer to represent their son, and ironically, the couple had given the school notice in April that their son would not attend Lake Norman Charter for ninth grade. Then, school officials called and offered to drop further discipline and promote their son to the ninth grade, if they would withdraw and drop any legal action.
After the charter school board meeting June 9, the couple said school officials suspended three other students after the incident in Asheville, including their son’s roommate.
The parents of two of those students took their appeal to the disciplinary hearing with Riemer, and both students were expelled, the woman said. The parents of her son’s roommate also withdrew their son rather than risk a hearing with Riemer and receiving an expulsion.
The couple said their son has never been to the principal’s office for any reason or been suspended in the past. But at the board meeting, they compared their son’s case to a seventh-grader, the son of a school administrator, who was caught with a stun gun in his backpack on March 4. The Huntersville Police Department said at the time that officers charged the juvenile with bringing a weapon on campus, but the couple said the boy received a lesser suspension and no referral for further discipline or expulsion.
After the June 9 hearing, one parent told a Herald reporter he and other parents support questions about the school’s disciplinary procedures. He asked to remain anonymous, fearing retribution against his children who remain students at the Lake Norman Charter School.