COVER- Toy story: How a high school superstar almost lost his future
The 18-year-old senior wheeled his father's pick-up truck into the student parking lot at Fluvanna County High School. It was just before 8am on the morning of Friday, January 29, when the event occurred that turned him from a normal student to the latest casualty in the war on school violence.
"I was just thinking about getting to class," recalls Justin Sexton.
A member of Fluvanna High's football team, he'd been voted Homecoming King in the fall, and despite working three part-time jobs, Sexton somehow maintained a 3.2 GPA. His hard work had paid off as he was accepted early admission to his first choice school, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, and the Officer Candidate Program of the U.S. Coast Guard.
But as he prepared to park his father's white 1999 Ford F-250 he sometimes drove to school, Sexton was flagged down by an administrator who noticed the absence of a necessary permit required for on-site parking. Sexton promised he'd stop by the school office to purchase the $20 sticker, and he started to pull out of the lot.
"I wasn't worried," he says with a shrug. He should have been.
He would soon find himself facing what amounted to expulsion in a case that would throw Fluvanna County into uproar and reignite a debate on common sense amid the post-Columbine culture of fear that permeates schools to this day.
Search and destroy
"Stop!" yelled Jeff Scales, an assistant principal.
Confused, Sexton says, he did as Scales requested, climbed out of the truck and looked where Scales was pointing. Something was wedged between the truck's rear cab window and the silver toolbox bolted to the pick-up bed: a capless Aquafina water bottle with brown residue at the bottom.
"He said, 'What's in that bottle?'" Sexton recalls. The administrator told Sexton he believed the container held tobacco spit, something Sexton didn't doubt, but for which he says he didn't feel responsible.
"I said, 'I don't know– it's not mine'," he recalls. Sexton says he pointed out that anyone could have put it there and that he didn't even "dip" tobacco, but that didn't satisfy Scales.
"He wanted to search my truck," says Sexton.
April 20, 1999 was the day that changed the way educators, parents and students think about school safety. Until that time, the stereotypical misfit seemed ripped from the screen of The Breakfast Club or Revenge of the Nerds– brooding rebels or hopeless dorks, as harmless as they were friendless. If given the chance, they might even "get the girl" or grow up to be the next Bill Gates. Hurt someone? It seemed laughable.
But in a pair of dark trenchcoats, beneath which were hidden arsenals they would use to slaughter their classmates and teachers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned that stereotype inside out. The misfit was now a ticking time bomb, or perhaps even the devil himself, bent on ending innocent lives in a spray of bullets and blood.
The two students, long known by authorities to have antisocial tendencies, arrived at Columbine High School near Littleton, Colorado where they set bombs and, using shotguns, a rifle, and a semi-automatic pistol, proceeded to mow down fellow students and teachers, killing 13 and injuring 24, before shooting themselves in the school library as authorities closed in.
Since that time, there have been dozens of copycat crimes, including the deadliest school shooting in modern history, less than three hours from Charlottesville where Seung Hui Cho killed 32 of his Virginia Tech classmates and professors on April 16, 2007– almost exactly eight years after Columbine.
Closer to home, Albemarle County school administrators thought they'd stumbled upon such a plot in 2006 when they were tipped off to online communications and other behavior among four teens at different county schools they contended suggested a plan to blow up two Albemarle high schools. An aggressive prosecution put the teens behind bars for months, although no bomb materials, plot evidence, or– in the case of some of the students– even a personal connection were ever found.
While "school shooter" is a term that had no meaning 11 years ago, today it conjures images of terror and death– and it is directly responsible for the "zero tolerance" trend that swept the nation's schools beginning with Columbine and which has resulted in expulsions and even arrests of students, many of whom harbored no malice toward classmates or teachers and who have nothing in common with the angry, anti-social misfits who would carry out such horrific crimes.
"Our society has moved toward an 'order society' where kids have to be controlled," says John Whitehead, founder of the Charlottesville-based civil liberties organization the Rutherford Institute. "Kids are seen as targets or the enemy."
Whitehead has fought on behalf of many of these kids.
They include the Louisa County seventh grader who was suspended from school because of a song she wrote for a creative expression class project, the New York third-grader suspended and arrested for using an L-shaped piece of paper as a gun in a pretend game of "cops and robbers," and the South Carolina tenth-grader who lost his chance to attend the Air Force Academy due to the semester-long expulsion he received for accidentally carrying a Swiss Army knife to school.
Justin Sexton never thought he'd become one of those students.
Back in Fluvanna
As assistant principal Scales conducted his inquiry that day in late January, Sexton quickly owned up to a pack of cigarettes in the cab, offering to hand them over even with the knowledge that their existence on school grounds would bring a one-day suspension. But that admission and offer didn't deter Scales, who suggested a search– and informed Sexton that refusing a search constitutes a separate offense– carrying an automatic 10-day suspension.
"I said, I'm 18, I admit that I smoke, and I told him I know that I don't have to let him search my truck– I told him it's not right to search it for something that wasn't even in my truck."
Sexton says Scales reiterated the 10-day threat. Uneasy, Sexton called his father, Col. Tim Sexton, to ask advice.
"He asked me if I had anything in there," Sexton recalls of the conversation with his father, which included the admission about the cigarettes, something of which his father disapproved.
After considering the likely outcomes, Col. Sexton advised his son to allow the search to avoid the lengthier suspension. Both father and son assumed that once Sexton handed over the contraband cigarettes, the episode would end. They were wrong.
"They kept searching it, to see if there was anything else they could get me in trouble for," says Sexton.
By this point, associate principal Patty Mason had joined the mission. Scales was rummaging through the vehicle's cab, Sexton says, while Mason had clambered onto the bed of the truck. There, in the built-in toolbox, she hit paydirt.
"They told me they found a gun," Sexton says. "I was like, 'Are you serious right now?'"
The mysterious discovery made more sense to Sexton once he got a look at the weapon: it was an airsoft rifle.
Packing less power than a B.B. gun, airsofts are popular with teens and pre-teens who enjoy shooting each other with spring or gas propelled plastic pellets. During play, airsoft users require only eye protection to prevent injury, and Sexton says he and his friends have played with airsofts in the woods and fields behind his Palmyra home near Lake Monticello.
But while many families consider them simple toys– a step up from a Nerf gun– airsofts are among the clearly listed "weapons" forbidden by Fluvanna and other local school districts' code of conduct. Justin admits he knew the rule– but doesn't know how he could have avoided breaking it since, he says, he didn't know the airsoft was there.
Stunned by the discovery of the airsoft, an increasingly anxious Sexton told administrators he didn't know why the broken and pellet-less airsoft was in the toolbox, which was otherwise filled only with his father's tools.
"The only thing I've ever had is an airsoft pistol," he says he explained to the administrators, adding that his airsoft was home in his garage. Despite Sexton's explanation, he was sent home, and the airsoft– a replica of a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle– was turned over to the school's Resource Officer, who, Sexton says, informed him that the Fluvanna Commonwealth Attorney would be notified and that he could soon be facing criminal charges for weapon possession on school property.
"I was really scared," admits Sexton.
Constitution stops at the door
The U.S. Constitution protects every citizen against unreasonable search and seizure. State and federal laws require proof of intent when considering an accused's innocence or guilt. These laws are a bedrock of American democracy and a cornerstone of our legal system. These are rights enjoyed by all of us on public streets, in homes, and certainly in our courts– even by those accused of dreadful crimes.
But these rights don't apply if you're a student in an American public school, where Constitutional rights stop at the door– and zero tolerance policies, whose popularity soared after Columbine, exacerbate the issue.
At home that January afternoon, Justin, his father, and friends figured out the mystery of the airsoft. A month earlier, during Christmas break, Justin says, he and his friends had planned a weekend airsoft game that was cut short when the boys were called in to work a shift at Topeka steakhouse on Pantops. None of the teens remembers placing the airsoft in the toolbox, and none had looked for it since that time. His friends offered written statements to the school in an attempt to help clear Justin.
Coming from a family with a history in military and law enforcement– his father is a retired police officer who also ranked as a Colonel in the Fluvanna County Sheriff's Office– Sexton says he enlisted in the Coast Guard as much for the honor of serving his country as for the assistance the Guard will provide in paying for college.
However, no number of friendly explanations, family connections, or positive career plans can counter zero-tolerance. Sexton was not welcome back in Fluvanna County High School anytime soon.
On February 15, he learned exactly how long. At a meeting including assistant superintendent Maurice Carter, Sexton and his father were informed of the punishment Carter was recommending to the school board: a 364-day suspension.
Not only would Sexton not get to graduate or attend his senior prom, he stood to lose his acceptance to college and to the Coast Guard's Officer Candidate Program, since several of the prerequisites aren't offered through the alternative education program the County offers to ousted students.
"Something is definitely wrong," Col. Sexton would later write in an appeal, noting that if his daughter, a Fluvanna High junior, had driven his truck to school that day, she might be the one facing expulsion, even though she's never even operated an airsoft.
"This can't just be a cut and dry possession," Col. Sexton wrote, "when a student's education and future can be affected so drastically."
Oh, yes it can.
Where's the common sense?
"We're in a real crisis, looking at zero tolerance," says the Rutherford Institute's Whitehead. "Zero tolerance kicks you out even though you don't intend to break a rule."
Whitehead says the implementation of this type of inflexible disciplinary policy has not reduced violations, and does nothing to stop the violence they were designed to prevent.
"Does it prevent the crazy kid? No, it doesn't prevent the kid you really want to stop," he says. "What they're doing is majoring on minors– spitwads, squirt guns. They're still not watching the troubled kids."
The Charlottesville-based Virginia School Boards Association agrees that zero tolerance isn't preferable as a disciplinary policy. While the organization includes zero tolerance as one of the sample policies school districts can adopt, "We have recommended that school boards adopt a case-by-case basis" policy, says the Association's executive director Frank Barham. "Federal law allows you to do zero tolerance, but zero takes out the human factor," he explains.
Albemarle County and Charlottesville both use a "case-by-case" policy, giving administrators discretion as long as they stay within Virginia state law, which requires possession of firearms on school grounds be reported to law and that some disciplinary action be commenced.
While Fluvanna's policy isn't zero tolerance across the board– the district allows administrators some discretion for minor infractions– the section of code regarding "weapons" leaves school-level administrators no wiggle room.
"The disciplinary sanction for bringing a firearm to school or to a school sponsored activity is expulsion for at least one year," it reads, then listing a range of "weapons" including any knife, slingshot, or any air rifle or B.B. gun, even any toy gun.
"Violation of this policy shall require that proceedings for the discipline of the student involved be initiated immediately by the principal."
Armed with the report from Mason and Scales and the airsoft they'd discovered, Sexton says Fluvanna County High School principal James Barlow did just that, recommending to the superintendent the one year expulsion demanded by the school's code.
Associate principal Mason declined comment on Justin's case specifically, citing confidentiality of student records, but speaking generally, she insists that in matters concerning weapons, she has no discretion.
"My opinion is to do my job," says Mason. "There's not room for judgment at my level."
As for Scales, who initiated the search based on the capless Aquafina bottle, he says he believes he handled Justin's situation in the best way possible.
"There's nothing I would have changed," he says, declining further comment.
Superintendent Carter says he believes Fluvanna's discipline policy is working, and while he also declines to comment on Sexton's case, he claims he does have the discretion to alter the recommended punishment in any disciplinary matter. In Sexton's case, he simply chose not to.
So it was that Justin Sexton was barred from the grounds of Fluvanna High School, where for the previous three and half years he'd been a model student, not only playing on the football team but serving in the Student Government Association.
He began spending his mornings attending alternative education classes, and every afternoon he worked at Master's Auto Body shop in Charlottesville. At night, he says, he did his homework and tried to avoid thinking about what would happen if his ODU and Coast Guard acceptances got revoked.
"It was real nerve-wracking," he says. "I was trying to look at the positive, but it crossed my mind."
His girlfriend of 10 months, a 2009 Fluvanna High grad who is now a freshman at ODU, stood by him, says Sexton. But his friends, although he appears to have many, couldn't get together with him as often, as they were occupied with the school activities in which they'd previously participated together.
"They were all busy," he says without anger.
For his father, watching a son whose future had been filled with promise face what he sees as an unfair persecution was painful.
"I couldn't believe they would try to pull something like this with someone who's been trying to use the system to get educated," says the elder Sexton. "I can't understand why they would push that so hard."
But in the end, the Fluvanna community pushed harder, lifting Justin's spirits and, perhaps, helping to turn the tide. A Facebook group created by his girlfriend and dedicated to his reinstatement soon swelled to over 1,000 members. Friends, family, and strangers inundated the school board with letters. And an official appeal was lodged.
On Thursday, March 4, Sexton and his father went before the Fluvanna County School Board to present their case including raising the issue of the pick-up truck's open bed, into which anyone could place anything.
"Any disgruntled student against another student certainly could get revenge by simply placing an airsoft rifle in another student's vehicle," the elder Sexton wrote, "and that would automatically cause the student to be expelled."
He pointed out an apparent violation of the school's own written policy, which points out that "students should be told of their right to refuse to be searched, and students must not perceive [themselves] at risk of punishment for refusing to grant permission for the search." And Justin says he wanted the school board to understand that granting the search was proof he didn't know about the airsoft.
"If I knew that was in there," he says, "I wouldn't have let them search my truck."
Within an hour, with a vote of 4-2, Justin Sexton was reinstated. He resumed classes the following morning.
A month after his return to school, Justin says he's ready to put the incident behind him. Catching up on missed classwork was a challenge, he says, but he's managed, proudly noting that his most recent report card reflected all As. Students welcomed him back enthusiastically.
"Everyone was coming, jumping on me, saying 'So glad you got back in, it wasn't the same without you.'"
But while he's happy it's over, he says he doesn't want the same thing to happen to another Fluvanna student and he hopes his situation will serve as a learning experience for administrators.
"I wasn't guilty of anything here," he notes, adding, "if it happens to anyone else, I've got their back."
None of the six Fluvanna County School Board members were willing to comment on the matter, and the Hook was unable to find anyone willing to defend the concept of punishing a student for a contraband toy he didn't know he had.
Col. Sexton, sitting in his Palmyra-area living room, shakes his head, still seemingly stunned by the decision by Superintendant Carter.
"He says, 'I can put your son back in school tomorrow or I can recommend expulsion. He picked the maximum." Carter declines to discuss the case.
The Rutherford Institute's Whitehead says he hopes schools will move toward discipline policies based on intent and on severity– not hysteria.
In late 1999, a Florida teen was suspended for bringing a nail-clipper to school. More than ten years later, Justin Sexton just lost five weeks of school for a toy he didn't know he possessed.
Blanket punishments and zero tolerance, Whitehead says, are the polar opposite of the Constitution protections students should be learning in their classes.
"It undermines the whole idea of what we stand for in this country," he says. "It's nuts."