Who's committed the crime here?

19th May 1995 at 01:00
A bewildered mother lists the injustices she feels her son suffered when he was expelled from school. Much has been said recently about how schools should deal with cannabis possession and smoking on their premises. Many have used immediate expulsion both as a punishment and as a deterrent.

To me this raises an issue much wider than what is the appropriate punishment to fit the crime. It makes me wonder whether fundamental principles of justice exist in schools: notably, that you are innocent until proved guilty.

Schools have enormous power. I am concerned about the abuse of that power in the case of my 15-year-old son, Sam, who was expelled in his final GCSE year for a cannabis incident.

This is a catalogue of the events which ended his schooling forever.

Day One: A teacher apprehends Sam and another boy who is rolling a cannabis joint. Sam is watching. They are taken to the headteacher who questions them. The head telephones me to say Sam is being excluded from school immediately. "I shall recommend," he says, "that this exclusion be made permanent."

Later that day: The senior management team endorses the sentence. Shocked and distressed, I repeatedly remind the head that Sam was not doing anything, other than looking on. Nevertheless, I receive a letter saying that he has been excluded from school - the only comprehensive in town - for bringing drugs on to the premises.

Day Three: A senior teacher announces to Sam's year that two boys have been expelled for a drugs offence. The judgment of Sam's peers is instant and varied. To some he is a villain, to others a hero. The story is now public property.

Day Four: This is a big story for a small town and the media become involved. The headteacher issues press statements. There is a front page story in the evening and weekly papers: "School Drugs Pair are Banned: Two teenagers have been suspended from school after being caught smoking cannabis." The billboard outside the local newsagent screams: "Drugs Pair Expelled."

Days Five to Fifteen: Sam is at home, miserable and bewildered. His attitude to school gets progressively worse, his relationship with us gets increasingly tense. Everyone is worried about the amount of time and work he is missing at this vital moment in his GCSE course.

Day Sixteen: A governors' meeting is convened to endorse the sentence. Sam is questioned for some time. The local education authority representative then says: "As we are agreed that Sam did not bring drugs on to the school premises, what then is he being excluded for?"

The head hastily changes the charge to "gross disobedience". Sam's crime is now that of meeting the other boy knowing that he was carrying drugs. We wait while the governors decide whether to uphold the sentence. They do. Sam is guilty as charged.

But the local authority representative is not so sure. She needs time to consult with her colleagues. A week later Sam is told that the decision of the head and governors has been over-ruled and that he has the right to go back to school.

Day Seventeen: Nobody, except Sam, underestimates the problems of returning to school after almost a month away and coping with the level of notoriety he has acquired. Of course he finds it hard. He has lost his impetus and, somewhere along the line, his always precarious self-esteem has disappeared altogether.

Three months later Sam makes a unilateral decision to leave school without taking his exams. "I've messed it all up Mum," he tells me. "There's no point in staying."

If Sam had been suspected of any crime outside school he would have had his rights made explicit and protected from the moment a charge was made and his "trial" would have been conducted under a legitimate system. The judicial system in his school was not in place to protect the individual, but to protect authority. Sam appeared to have no rights and several injustices were committed:

* The decision to sentence Sam by exclusion was taken by the headteacher after less than 10 minutes of interrogation.

* The school chose to administer the most severe and destructive punishment in its power in order to protect its image and deter other pupils.

* The sentence was upheld by the governors even after the charge was changed.

* The school ignored the Department for Education's guiding principle on exclusions that: "permanent exclusion should be used as a last resort when all other reasonable steps have been taken."

* The headteacher made defamatory and untrue statements about Sam to the press.

* I had to fight the whole school system single-handed.

* There was, and still is, nothing in that system which upholds the fundamental principle that Sam is innocent until proven guilty.

Sam's mother is a lone parent working in education

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