Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series about discipline in Maine schools.

In June, Laurie Bauman’s son was expelled from Cape Elizabeth High School after he sold a pot brownie to another freshman at school and that student wound up in a hospital emergency room.

The student recovered and Bauman’s son – an honor roll student and award-winning musician who hadn’t been in serious trouble before – admitted responsibility, she said. Bauman was aware that her son was dabbling in drug use. She had enrolled him in drug counseling six months earlier. But she was shocked to learn that he was selling, she said.

In the ensuing months, a lack of information and support from school officials has made a bad situation worse. The family’s experience illustrates what some say is a gaping hole in Maine law that allows public schools to kick students out for bad behavior without providing an opportunity to continue their education elsewhere or a pathway to return anytime soon.

State officials are taking steps to address the problem, but their effort comes too late for Bauman’s son. Nearly four months after he was kicked out of school, the Baumans don’t know exactly how long he’s banned or what he must do to make amends.

“What exactly does he have to do to get back into school? I still don’t know what that is,” Bauman said.

School officials have told Bauman that he’ll probably be out for a year. Their lawyer and her lawyer are negotiating terms of a possible re-entry plan that might include some kind of restitution and counseling, which her son continued through the summer.

When Bauman’s son was expelled, his opportunity to get a free public education effectively evaporated. As long as he’s expelled in Cape Elizabeth, no other district is required to enroll him.

Absent clear guidance from the school district, Bauman borrowed $20,000 and tapped her retirement fund so she could send her son to a private school for the year. But what happens to students who don’t have a parent like Bauman?

A legislative panel is reviewing state laws and school district policies on expulsions to determine how they affect graduation rates. The panel is an outgrowth of 2010 legislation, sponsored by state Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, that set a goal of increasing Maine’s high school graduation rate from 80 percent to 90 percent by 2016.

The panel, which includes educational, legal and social service experts, is expected to issue a report in November on various expulsion practices across the state and recommend new laws to propose when the Legislature convenes in January.

“Right now, the laws reflect a zero-tolerance attitude. You’re gone, and no district has to accept you,” said Alfond, a panel member. “I think we need fair and firm rules, but those rules need to keep kids in school.”

Alfond said he expects the panel to recommend clearly defined rules for expulsions and suspensions, which also are under review. The new rules likely will require a re-entry plan for each expelled student that includes keeping up with school work, possibly through online classes that would minimize costs for school districts.

It doesn’t happen often – 108 students were expelled from Maine’s 179 school districts last year, according to the state Department of Education.

Thirty-two of the expelled students continued to receive educational services through their school districts. Comparable expulsion numbers from previous years were unavailable.

Some districts expel students more than others. The Portland School Committee expelled none of its nearly 7,000 students during the past year, while the Windham-Raymond School Board, which oversees 3,370 students, held seven expulsion hearings and four readmission hearings in the same period.

As a member of the Windham-Raymond board, Marge Govoni said she has been brought to tears when voting to expel a student.

“It’s heart-wrenching for everyone involved,” Govoni said. “We want our students to become productive citizens, and we know that expelling them isn’t necessarily the best way to do that. But sometimes it is the best way to get them back on track, and we have to ensure the safety of the school as a whole.”

When students are expelled from Windham-Raymond schools, parents are given a one-page flier that outlines conditions for readmission, which can include counseling and some form of restitution, said Superintendent Sandy Prince.

Students are encouraged to receive free counseling and tutoring provided through the district’s restorative learning center at Windham High School, which costs about $70,000 a year to operate, Prince said. Students are never expelled for a set amount of time.

“We have a strict code of conduct,” Prince said. “When students are expelled, we want them to return as soon as they have met the conditions and feel ready (to follow the code of conduct).”

Expulsion policies and practices can vary from district to district, as long as they reflect state and federal laws and education regulations. Most districts have adopted a sample policy offered by the Maine School Management Association that was drawn up by Drummond Woodsum, a Portland law firm that represents 95 percent of Maine school districts.

The widely adopted policy stipulates that a student can be expelled only by school board vote following a hearing in executive session, when the student may be represented by a lawyer. The one-page policy also notes that the board has the authority to readmit an expelled student when it has evidence that the offending behavior likely won’t happen again.

Many districts, including Cape Elizabeth and Windham-Raymond, have adopted additional expulsion guidelines drawn up by Drummond Woodsum, which start with the suggestion that they “may be adjusted to meet the flexible requirements of due process on a case-by-case basis.” The two-page document also directs the superintendent to inform an expelled student if the school board imposes any conditions for readmission.

However, state law and most district guidelines don’t require school officials to provide a re-entry plan.

“Most school boards direct superintendents to outline conditions for readmission,” said Bruce Smith, a lawyer at Drummond Woodsum who has represented school districts for 26 years. “When you expel a student, you give a road map to get back.”

The Cape Elizabeth School Committee imposed no conditions for readmission when it expelled Bauman’s son in June, Bauman said. Cape

Superintendent Alan Hawkins declined to discuss the Baumans’ case specifically, but he did share his thoughts on expulsions in general.

Hawkins, who will retire in December, said he has presided over 17 expulsions in eight years as a superintendent, including three years in Wiscasset. His experience in Cape Elizabeth included the expulsion of 10 seniors who admitted vandalizing the high school in 2008.

Hawkins said he and other school officials take the responsibility of expelling a student very seriously. Not only do they hold the offending student’s future in their hands, but they’re also responsible for the safety of all other students in the district.

“When a child is expelled, they are no longer our student,” Hawkins said.

“Conceivably, we could do nothing. I don’t believe in doing that. I firmly believe that every child deserves an education. But I also have to be sure that every other child is safe when that child is in school.”

Furnishing drugs or alcohol to another student on school grounds calls for an automatic 10-day suspension and referral to the superintendent for possible expulsion, according to the district’s written policy on substance abuse.

Typically, any Cape Elizabeth student who endangers another student is expelled for at least one year, Hawkins said, though the length of punishment isn’t stipulated in a written policy. He agrees that school districts should provide a re-entry plan whenever a child is expelled, but he doesn’t believe the school board should be burdened with negotiating the terms of a re-entry plan as part of the expulsion hearing.

“It’s difficult to come up with a plan at that point in time,” Hawkins said. “That is left to me, as superintendent, to work on afterward.”

Portland Superintendent Jim Morse, who is a member of the legislative panel that’s reviewing expulsion policies, disputes the need to delay providing re-entry plans.

Morse was superintendent of the Messalonskee School District in Oakland for 12 years before coming to Portland last year. In that time, he presided over about six expulsions and developed an approach to minimize their impact on students’ education.

Morse said he meets with parents before an expulsion hearing to develop a readmission plan that includes counseling, restitution and continued education with a tutor or other provider as long as the expulsion is in force.

Morse noted that federal law requires public schools to continue providing instruction to special education students who get expelled, and he believes districts should offer all students the same opportunity.

Morse also believes that expelled students should be given a written re-entry plan within one week of being kicked out of school. And while some students and parents may want to know exactly how long the punishment will last, Morse said it’s better to leave it open-ended.

“The expulsion should last only as long as it takes to meet the conditions for readmission,” Morse said. “For that reason, when a child is expelled, we need to have a clear readmission plan. Without a clear plan, a youngster might conclude that they’re not welcome and drop out. And that’s exactly what we don’t want to happen.”

Morse said districts have a greater responsibility to account for expelled students than they did in the past because the future is more precarious for expelled students today.

Many parents cannot afford to send an expelled student to private school.

Students old enough to work have a hard time finding well-paid jobs without a high school diploma, especially in a down economy. If schools shirk their duty to teach students how to behave well, Morse said, they fail society as a whole.

“By sending them out on the street without support, you have done nothing to ensure they will make a better decision next time,” he said. “You may have made school safer, but you haven’t made society any safer.”

Laurie Bauman wasn’t about to let her 15-year-old son spend the next several months hanging around the house or working part-time jobs while his peers were in school. She enrolled him at the Hyde School, a boarding school in Bath that emphasizes character development.

“He’s very happy and very busy,” Bauman said. “I think he’s in a good place.”

A homemaker who has three other children, Bauman took on significant debt to cover the Hyde School’s $47,000 tuition. Her husband didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed for this story.

Bauman anticipates returning to work as a physical therapist to pay off the debt. She hopes her son can return to Cape Elizabeth High School next year so she won’t have to borrow more money. Meanwhile, her son’s case is making its way through the court system.

Bauman said she’s speaking publicly about her son’s situation because she believes substance abuse is a serious problem in Maine schools and other families suffer needlessly in silence when a child is expelled.

“I know my son did something wrong,” Bauman said. “I want my son to realize he’s done something wrong and work his way back. But they’re certainly not eager to show him the way back.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]