Education

School board: Media 'inaccurate' about student's suspension

Posted December 31, 2010 10:10 a.m. EST
Updated December 31, 2010 11:23 p.m. EST

— The Lee County Board of Education blasted the media on Friday for what it called "inaccurate" coverage of a Sanford student who was suspended for bringing a paring knife to school.

Ashley Smithwick, 17, said Tuesday that she was suspended from Southern Lee High School in October after school personnel found a small paring knife in her lunchbox. She was charged recently with misdemeanor possession of a weapon on school grounds.

The school board held an emergency closed session meeting Friday to discuss the matter, which has garnered national attention.

"The Lee County Board of Education is legally prohibited from releasing details and commenting on this student discipline matter further. The Board, however, contends strenuously that the related television and newspaper articles are inaccurate and that all relevant laws and board policies were adhered to and followed," the board said in a statement.

The school board said it "will be glad to comment further on this matter if the student and her parents will provide the Lee County Board of Education a written release of the school records."

Smithwick's mother, Heidi Smithwick, said Friday that she's not ready to say whether she wants to release Ashley's records.

"My job is to protect Ashley. It's the board's job to give her a quality educational experience," she said.

Heidi Smithwick is working to retain an attorney for her daughter's upcoming court date, but declined to say if she plans legal action against the school system.

Ashley Smithwick, a basketball and soccer player who takes college-level courses, said school personnel found the knife while searching the belongings of several students for drugs. She said she mistakenly took her father's lunchbox to school, noting that they have identical lunchboxes and that he often packs a paring knife to slice an apple at work.

Lee County Schools Superintendent Jeff Moss issued a statement Wednesday to say that the 3-inch-long knife was found in Smithwick's purse, not her lunchbox. He also denied her claim that she had been suspended for the rest of the school year.

"She is currently enrolled as a student at the school," he said.

On Friday, Moss said it was "disingenuous of the media" to ask questions about a specific student since the media knows state law prohibits him from talking about the disciplinary record of any student.

A disciplinary contract signed last month by Smithwick, her mother, Southern Lee High Principal Bonnie Almond and Moss states, however, that Smithwick cannot "physically access SLHS campus for the remainder of the 2010-2011 school year."

The contract also calls for her to complete her English and pre-calculus classes through an online program offered by Southern Lee High and the rest of her classes at Central Carolina Community College through an agreement between the high school and the college.

"If she was an actual enrolled student, then why is she not allowed to access the school campus or use any of the resources that she would need for classes?" her mother, Heidi Smithwick, asked Thursday.

Heidi Smithwick said she has tried repeatedly to call Moss since her daughter's suspension to discuss the situation but hasn't been able to reach him.

"Two months later, we receive a criminal summons for the paring knife," she said.

She said she and her husband never wanted the media attention for their daughter's situation. They only wanted to resolve the matter with school officials.

"I do feel it is my responsibility to protect her and salvage some sort of future that she could have," Heidi Smithwick said.