Omigawd, what is going on over at Buist Academy?
One week, three seventh-grade girls are totally busted for scribblin' out a naughty (by nature) slam book and get suspended from school. And then the next week the principal is all for expelling them, and then the principal pulls, like, a 180 and allows them back in a few days later. Sweeeeeet!
What the freak (WTF)?
And then Marvin Stewart, the hot-hot-hot chair of the Dist. 20 Constituent Board makes an end run and calls in Jonathan T. Law and gets the 12-year-olds 'cuffed, stuffed, and up on charges. And now he claims he hasn't even read what the girls wrote.
In Adult-Speak: On Friday, Nov. 4, two of the girls were spotted passing a journal back and forth in French class. The teacher confiscated the book and passed it on to principal Sallie Ballard after reading some salacious passages in the "slam book."
Ballard read the book more closely and found several potentially "serious" parts. One part spoke of "killing" a teacher at the school, and another note mentioned killing or "squashing" a fellow classmate like a bug in an alarming style.
In one passage, one of the girls begins: "First I'll tie him to a chair and throw tape balls at him 'til I start seeing bruises," the passage reads, unedited. "[T]hen i'll push the chair over so he falls over. and becomes unconsious [sic]. While he's still unconsious, i'll thrown him in a huge pool of milk and leave him to drown."
One of the other girls responds: "No slowly put drops of milk on his tongue so he slowly dies of allergies. and stuff cheese in his mouth.
"Then put 500 bowling balls on each foot and drop him in a huge pile of that chicken he spazzed over, and covered him in milk!!"
But then, immediately after a handful of lines mocking the apparently extremely lactose-intolerant boy, they wrote: "I talked on the phone with [name deleted] for 3 hours Sunday night!! from 12-3! ahhhh I him! ha ha ."
Suddenly, the patois of the journal swings back from the ramblings of a pre-Columbine Dylan Klebold to a pre-adolescent girl who luvs the Black Eyed Peas. (Half of the first page of the journal is dedicated to the lyrics of the band's "My Humps" song.)
The girls don't even really cuss in the journal, using the word "@$$" instead of the real deal. And then there's the invite to a church group outing.
But, after reading the supposedly violent sections, as well as one that apparently detailed how the girls "planned" to kill a teacher with acid drops to the skin while forcing him to wear "baggy clothes," Ballard was armed with enough written fodder to concern any parent who has seen television footage of school shootings.
So, to be in full compliance with the school district's policies and procedures, the principal took the writings to the Charleston County School District's assistant superintendent in charge of Dist. 20, the district her school is located in.
For some reason, officials from the district's newly-created Office of Student Placement apparently also weighed in, and recommended removing the girls from school.
Ballard, who, as principal, has the ability to do so under CCSD policies, suspended the girls.
One of the girls' mothers, Ramona Sanchez-Measom, contacted Guy Vitetta, a local attorney who specializes in criminal and family law and also has two daughters at the exclusive downtown academic magnet.
Vitetta, who refers to all subsequent actions against the girls as "the silliness," filed an injunction against the suspension and scoured the halls of the county's courthouse at 100 Broad St. for a circuit court judge to hear his pleadings on Monday.
Last week, a judge from Spartanburg heard the injunction in a 45-minute proceeding and took it under advisement before making a ruling.
In the various papers CCSD lawyers filed in response to Vitetta and Sanchez-Measom's injunction was an affidavit from principal Ballard that showed she now wanted the girls out.
Ballard, who initially said she would prefer to handle the matter internally and not even suspend the girls, now stated in the affidavit that she wanted the girls expelled from her school and assigned to another school for the best interests of both Buist Academy and the girls involved, even though she stated in her affidavit that this was the first time any of the troika had been in any sort of serious trouble.
While the judge was mulling his decision that day, Ballard apparently reversed course yet again and allowed the girls to return to school.
When asked last Thursday about the change of heart on the day the girls returned to school, the principal initially declined to comment. She later relented, saying she changed her mind because a pediatric psychiatrist who reviewed the journal assured her these kids posed no danger to students or teachers.
Even though the girls are back in class, with the ability to make up the work and tests they missed, the situation may be far from over, as the three girls were arrested and charged with violating a relatively obscure city ordinance, assault with no battery where the victim is in fear of injury.
Police arrested the girls after Dist. 20 Constituent School Board chair Marvin Stewart, who recently came in third for the Dist. 4 City Council seat, called and asked them to investigate.
Solicitor Ralph Hoisington says that it is "very unlikely" his office will prosecute the three girls.
After receiving a courtesy call from the Charleston Police Department officer investigating the case, Hoisington says there wasn't enough evidence to charge them with the potentially very damaging state felony of threatening a public official because of what they wrote about a teacher.
Hoisington says the worst that could happen to the girls, if the matter did go to court, is that they would have to go through some sort of juvenile arbitration-required counseling. "But it probably wouldn't even get that far."
Twelve-year-old girls making passive, indirect threats in a juvenile manner isn't enough for Hoisington to press charges. "Maybe they should be redirected into a creative writing class," he says.
Speaking in his living room last week, Stewart defended his decision to get the police involved -- something he has never done before in any other situation with any other student.
"Hey, it's simple -- I was told by Ms. Ballard and a school district official that alleged threats had been made against a student and a teacher, and I asked if the students had been formally charged," says Stewart. "For me, it was a matter of due process.
"I saw a couple of the paragraphs, and I saw the officials and the principal were dragging their feet. And for me, it was first a law enforcement issue and second, a school district issue."
Stewart is adamant that he wasn't unfairly singling out Buist, a school he has criticized severely for not serving Dist. 20 first and foremost, or that his actions were racially motivated.
"When I saw the journal, I didn't know if the students were black, white, blue, or bronze," he says. "If the first 100 kids from Dist. 20 that got into Buist were white, I'd sleep well at night, because if black students failed to get in, it wouldn't be because of the color of their skin, but because they just needed to bone up on their studies."
Stewart says that, contrary to what has been reported in local media (including this paper), he does not "hate" Buist, he just hates the process that led to the Dist. 20 school serving the entire county, unlike magnets in other constituent districts that primarily serve students who live in them.
Stewart, whose two grown daughters didn't get into Buist but have gone on to colleges and graduate work, claims calling the police was an attempt to "put pressure" on the school and CCSD so officials didn't "circle the wagons" yet again to cordon off a potentially embarrassing situation.
When presented with a copy of the slam book, Stewart declined to read it, saying he'd rather not know what's written in it, as the matter might come before him again in the future and he wanted to stay impartial.
He rejects the idea that he has made a mountain out of a molehill, admonishing Ballard and CCSD officials for skewing his perspective of the documents by referring to them as "threats."
"What the principal should have done was let the kids come to our board meeting," he says of a scheduled hearing before the Dist. 20 board. "We would have treated them as any other cases that had similar factors. It's not always a worst-case scenario with us. But due process was not followed."
It looks like there may be plenty of fault to go around, as Stewart received an e-mail from a member of the CCSD School Board warning him he may face legal consequences as a result of his actions.
School Board chair Nancy Cook confirmed Friday that she sent the note to Stewart, but was aghast that what she meant as a confidential missive is now being discussed publicly.
"It's a legal matter, so I can't comment on it," says Cook. "But if Marvin is willing to sign a waiver, I'd be glad to do so. I find it amazing that this level of unconfidentiality exists."
Not everyone on the School Board is convinced Stewart was in the wrong. Boardmember Sandi Engleman says that if the matter had come before the county-wide board, she would have "leaned" toward expulsion, even though she has not read or seen the journal -- an opinion that immediately earned a belly laugh from attorney Vitetta.
("She has an opinion about something she hasn't even read?" he asks.)
Engleman says her husband, School Board vice chair David Engleman, agrees with her "way of thought" on this issue.
She also says that this "big debacle" is a perfect example of how the Board needs to craft policies that "say what they mean, and mean what they say." Engleman uses the recent East Cooper teen whose expulsion was upheld for having a "hit" list at school as an example.
"Until the system is squared away, I see nothing wrong with a little micromanagement."
Sanchez-Measom, the concerned parent who hired Vitetta, just wants the matter to go away, and for the public's -- and the media's -- attention to be focused somewhere else.
"These are all good kids," she says. "Sure, what they did was wrong, and they deserve to receive some sort of punishment, but it didn't have to come to all this."
It's doubtful that those three girls meant to stir up such a tempest in the school district's teapot when they wrote: "Peer pressure is gay, and needs to die! haha I YOU! ... I'm going to tie peer pressure to a brick and throw it at the bridge 7 times. then I'm gonna drop it in the river. HA! Peer pressure is now on the list!"
(In the spirit of full disclosure, the writer who wrote this story, the editor who edited it, the photographer who took pictures for it, and the lawyer who reviewed it all have children at Buist Academy. -- Ed.)