Lakeside Pot Smokers Get the Law & Order Treatment

Expelled students say they were treated like murder suspects.

The suspects were hauled into isolated cells and questioned over the course of six hours. They were not told the allegations against them. If they didn't confess, their interrogators said, even worse consequences would follow. Finally, the suspects broke down and admitted to offenses that had nothing to do with the original investigation--and received the harshest possible punishment anyway.As the suspects and their families describe it, that's the scenario that occurred several weeks ago—not at police headquarters but at North Seattle's Lakeside School, the elite private institution attended by Bill Gates and the scions of some of the area's wealthiest and most powerful families. Lakeside confirms many aspects of the families' accounts, but says its response was justified by the serious nature of its investigation, which stemmed from some stolen laptops and branched out into alleged marijuana use and dealing by students. The school expelled four students in connection with the latter offenses.It all started September 14, when a student left her laptop in the girls' locker room as she went to soccer practice after school. (All high-school students at Lakeside are required to buy laptops. The campus also includes a middle school.) When she came back two hours later, she found that her laptop—and an estimated five others—were gone, according to police."We called the police immediately," says Lakeside spokesperson Jackie O'Ryan. She adds that administrators also conducted their own investigation, and during it heard "credible information" about drugs on campus. A letter sent home to parents after the expulsions clarifies the alleged connection: "The individuals we believe responsible for stealing the laptops additionally asked two of our students to sell drugs to other students on campus."Looking into that information, administrators took four students out of their classrooms on a subsequent day, says O'Ryan. "I was pulled out of Precal Fundamentals at approximately 9:30," wrote one ousted junior (whom Seattle Weekly is not naming because of his age) in an e-mail to his father, Todd Karr. "[Assistant Upper School Director] Bryan Smith took my school bag and asked for my cell phone (I didn't have one). I was kept in Bryan Smith's office until approximately 3:30."He continues that the school counselor first asked him questions about his emotional state, after which three administrators "interrogated" him."I don't know what you're talking about," he kept saying when administrators told him to confess to unspecified allegations, according to Karr, who adds: "The only thing he could think of that he had done was that a couple of months ago he left school without permission, smoked a joint, and came back to jazz practice high. And then they said, 'OK, we're going to expel you.'"Although O'Ryan maintains that only one student was held all day, parents of another junior, who requested anonymity for fear of harming their son's reputation, claim their child was also held for six hours. They say both his cell phone and laptop were confiscated. At one point, administrators brought in a staffer close to the boy, according to his father. (O'Ryan says all the students had "a trusted adult" with them.) The student confided to the staffer that, over a two-week period last year, he had supplied friends with pot that they smoked together off campus. The staffer urged him to tell the administrators, which he did, resulting in his immediate expulsion.Both sets of parents complain that they were never called during this lengthy questioning. Karr's son, in an e-mail to Head of School Bernie Noe and school administrators, also contends that the expulsions violate school policy, which outlines a process of disciplinary hearings by the school's student and staff "Judiciary Committee." Those hearings are supposed to include the presentation of evidence and the testimony of witnesses.O'Ryan counters that the policy also says that cases will be evaluated on a "case-by-case" basis, and that in the cases in question "it would have wasted the time" of the Judiciary Committee since "administrators knew what action they were going to take.""Any kind of drug use, we don't compromise on that," she adds, arguing that a swift decision was also more compassionate for the students involved, in that their fate wouldn't be dragged out. Yet she acknowledges that the questioning itself was not swift, claiming that it took time to ferret out the truth. Parents, she adds, weren't called until that happened."The easy thing to do would have been to ignore the issues and protect our image," says O'Ryan. "But students deserve a safe place to learn."The families of the two expelled students, however, say the school's behavior was arrogant and abusive. "You'd expect a school of this stature not to be behaving like Abu Ghraib thugs," protests Karr.A parallel investigation also occurred at Capitol Hill's Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences, another elite private school at which laptops (also required of students) went missing around the same time. The school did not expel anyone, although, according to school spokesperson Jim Rupp, one student withdrew after being asked by administrators if she knew anything about the thefts.On September 24, police arrested an 18-year-old woman in connection with the Lakeside thefts and is investigating a possible connection with Seattle Academy's, according to Seattle Police Department spokesperson Mark Jamieson. (The suspect, not a current or former student at either school, was released the next day and has not been charged, although police say their investigation is ongoing.) Yet in comparison, the two schools' handling of their investigations suggests that Lakeside takes an unusually severe approach when it comes to weeding out misbehaving students.An extensive set of state regulations addresses the rights of public-school students in disciplinary matters, according to Tyson Vogeler, a supervisor in the school-safety division of the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. When long-term suspensions and expulsions are at issue, those regulations include the right to a hearing at which students are told the charges against them and allowed to present their side of the case. Typically, he says, a student found to be using drugs would be given a long-term suspension of maybe 30 days, but "would be back in five days if they agree to drug and alcohol counseling" (provided at no cost to the student).No such regulations govern private schools, where Vogeler says disciplinary policy is "a contractual agreement" between institutions and families. "We can simply say, 'We're finished,'" says Lisa Ayrault, high-school director of the private Seattle Waldorf School (which has campuses in North Seattle and Queen Anne), referring to expulsions. "We really are the boss." At the same time, she says "there's no way I could make an even-handed, well-considered decision without having heard from the student's family."Asked whether she would ever hold a student for six hours, Ayrault says that sounds "excessive." She also says she would tell students what the allegations against them were, although she might possibly start a conversation by asking whether a student knows why he or she is being questioned before doing so.Told about the questioning at Lakeside, she says, "I'm not surprised." Having taught at Lakeside for 15 years before leaving in 2004, Ayrault says she's heard of cases in which students were urged to confess to some unspecified charges. "I personally was not comfortable with that," she adds.At Seattle Academy, spokesperson Rupp says the school's approach to questioning students is to "assume nothing" about the veracity of allegations. He says an administrator might say something like, "This is what we're hearing. We don't assume it's true, but what can you tell us?" He also says parents would be called in before making a decision, including in the case of drug use, where the school would be likely to suggest treatment before expulsion. "We want to get to the root of a problem and get help for the kid," Rupp adds. "We would be naive idiots to think that kids aren't experimenting."Drug use, however, never came up in Seattle Academy's investigation into four laptops that went missing over a period of several weeks. Rupp says administrators focused on questioning the owners to find out if there were any patterns as to where and when they were stolen. But he says they asked the student who later withdrew whether she knew anything about the thefts. (The student, the sister of one of the expelled Lakeside kids, has a former boyfriend believed to be somehow involved, according to interviews with her family.)Back at Lakeside, O'Ryan says the school is now "working" with the expelled students' families on the matter of whether they will be held accountable for an entire year's tuition—which is $24,000 a year (though one family received generous financial aid).Meanwhile, the father who requested anonymity says he is considering a lawsuit based on uneven treatment. While he declines to be specific, he says children of major donors have not and would not be treated the same way."[That's] absolutely untrue," counters O'Ryan. "We act on every case where our attention is brought to violations of our policies."nshapiro@seattleweekly.com

 
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