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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Recent fight at Leland & Gray shows limits of program

TOWNSHEND—A violent confrontation in the school between two male students in a school bathroom on Jan. 5 resulted in injuries to one student’s face serious enough to warrant treatment, first at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend and later at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H.

The fight in January resulted in a charge of aggravated assault against student William J. Clayton, 17, of Jamaica. He was charged as an adult, and pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Jan. 4 in Windham Superior Court in Brattleboro.

If convicted, Clayton faces up to 15 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.

Vermont State Police claimed that Clayton allegedly broke several bones in the victim’s face. The identity of the victim, who is also underage, has not been made public.

According to news accounts, Leland & Gray Principal Dorinne Dorfman told Vermont State Trooper Kurt Wagenbach, who was on the scene, that the two students had been at odds for some time over a girl, over status, and over friends.

The confrontation was reportedly over headphones that Clayton had taken from the victim. They were later retrieved by a teacher who returned them to the owner prior to the fight.

The fight was broken up by a teacher who heard the yelling.

By coincidence, the first issue of Leland & Gray’s new student newspaper, The Burrower, happened to come out on the day of the fight and thoroughly covered another matter of law enforcement in the school milieu: a surprise search of student backpacks in a ceramics class on Dec. 2.

Headlined “Backpack Search Raises Ire – Student Questions Administrative Justification,” the story reports that on the morning of Dec. 2, a student was removed from a ceramics class.

Later, the teacher was told by a campus supervisor there was reasonable suspicion that a student had planted illegal substances in another student’s backpack.

The resulting search by two school staff members was done in the classroom. After the search, another student was removed.

No further information was given to the students left in the classroom at the time. Although it was not entirely clear from the story what the searchers were searching for, they did confiscate several over-the-counter drugs, including Midol, Tylenol, and ibuprofen.

Most of the debut issue of the paper concentrated on the search story — on its legality and the possible infringement of student rights — and included a long and detailed interview about those subjects with Principal Dorinne Dorfman.

Dorfman explained to student reporter Sarah Dickson why such searches are legitimate. “Schools operate under a guise of ‘reasonable suspicion,’” Dorfman stated.

The interview goes on to explain the fragility of student rights, and what happens if they are violated.

“It is a very very tough time for administrators, because nationally there is much more surveillance and intrusiveness into [a] student’s behaviors and belongings than at any other time in the last 50 or 60 years,” Dorfman told Dickson.

Dorfman elaborates on this point, noting that parents demand tough surveillance, especially where drugs are concerned.

The story concluded: “At this point what everyone wants to know is whether or not the search on Dec. 2 was an isolated incident. Dorfman said, ‘I think there could be more in the future.’”

The paper also includes a quote from the school handbook that sets out the school’s right to search and seize property any time, given reasonable cause.

The Burrower published a complex letter from 10th-grader Elizabeth Symanski that elaborated on what is reasonable and what is not, including a discussion of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure.

Apart from news and other information vital to students, a statement from the paper’s staff says they hope to have a cartoon section, an advice column, photos, and a game and puzzle section. The staff invites all interested students to join.

Dorfman, who publishes a “Monday Notes” column on the school’s web site, wrote a scholarly piece: “Free Speech, Students’ Rights, School Safety, and the Law” on Jan. 9, available on the school’s website.

Faculty advisor Dan DeWalt, who teaches journalism and is the school’s shop and woodworking teacher, says he isn’t sure how often the paper will be come out but regardless, he adds, “I want this to be a training ground for engaged citizens.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #139 (Wednesday, February 15, 2012).

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