Schools: No admission without an admission
Seattle Times staff reporter
LAKE BAY, Kitsap County — The cars roll up to the window at Tricia's Espresso. "Do you want that hot hot or drinkable hot?" asks the tall, slender boy with the short dark hair and glasses. "Straws with that?"
On this morning, while other 16-year-olds are in class, Josh Thornborough is helping his mother at her espresso stand. No math, no English — just double-tall lattes and nonfat mochas.
Josh would like to be in school, where he would be nearing the end of his freshman year. But he has been denied admission by two public-school districts that continue to implicate him in a "Columbine-style" plot last year at his middle school — even though a jury acquitted him.
What's particularly troubling to Josh and his mother is that two other boys who pleaded guilty in the incident and were sentenced to a year of probation are back in school. But the Peninsula School District keeps Josh out, insisting that he accept responsibility for a crime both he and a Pierce County jury said he did not do. The neighboring South Kitsap School District also won't accept him because he was expelled from Peninsula.
The Peninsula District concedes it is holding Josh to a higher standard than the criminal courts system is using. The district's superintendent has also said Josh is considered to be a threat to other students regardless of the acquittal.
Josh's family and others believe the district is overreacting to a plot that those involved say was simply talk. But in an era when school shootings have become painfully commonplace, many say it's difficult to fault schools for taking a tough stance.
Regardless, Josh's mother, Tricia Robins, is adamant that her son has answered the accusations and doesn't need to apologize for something he did not do. An attorney has taken on Josh's case pro bono, but unless either Josh or the school district relents, he will be out of school indefinitely, having run out of legal options.
"I need an education if I am going to do something with my life," Josh says.
About a year ago, rumors that some students were planning a "Columbine-style" attack in which "preppy" students and staff would be gunned down spread through the campus of Lake Bay's Key Peninsula Middle School.
On April 7, 2006, two students who had openly talked about the planned attack were called into the office of Principal Sharon Shaffer. Court documents say the principal asked the boys to pick out photos of anyone else involved from a school yearbook.
They pointed out a girl and Josh, then 14, saying he was going to make smoke bombs as a diversion.
The principal called the girl to his office, but she had left for home and her father refused to allow her to return her to school without a lawyer present. No charges were ever filed against her, and she later returned to school in a program for behaviorally disturbed students.
According to notes Shaffer wrote during the interview, Josh told her that the plot was just "a joke," but if it happened he would give token participation, even including wounding people. Yet in the same interview he explained that he knew the others "wouldn't naturally follow through with it. If they did then they're stupid to trust me. I would disarm them and call police or something."
Josh said he planned on making a smoke bomb for a science class. The father of one of the other boys insists none of those implicated in the plot had access to guns and court records say no weapons were ever found.
Josh and the two boys were arrested for conspiracy to commit murder, a charge that was later reduced. The three boys were immediately expelled.
As far as Josh's mother was concerned, the matter was a misunderstanding and she expected it to be cleared up soon.
Josh — a member of a church youth-group, a neighborhood babysitter and a boy known for mowing a disabled neighbor's lawn — had never been in trouble.
It never occurred to Robins that the documents giving her 10 days to request an expulsion hearing meant she had to request it or the district would permanently expel him.
While the other two boys pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of conspiracy to commit burglary, Josh, insisting on his innocence, went to trial in Pierce County Superior Court. He was acquitted of conspiracy to commit assault after a weeklong trial.
Robins thought her son's ordeal was over. She planned for him to start ninth grade at Gig Harbor's Peninsula High School in September. But the school district refused to admit him.
In a letter defending Josh's expulsion, Superintendent Terry Bouck said he knew Josh was found not guilty, but insisted that he still needed to accept responsibility for the crime and go to counseling.
"While recognizing that Joshua was acquitted of criminal charges, I determined that the evidence uncovered during the district's investigation supported the conclusion that Joshua was involved with and had some knowledge of a plot to attack students and faculty at school using guns and explosives," Bouck wrote in a court document.
Dennis Goss, Josh's attorney, believes the district wants Josh to admit guilt to limit its liability in a possible lawsuit. But Bouck, in court documents, writes that he believes Josh is a danger to others.
One of the boys who pleaded guilty to the plot was admitted back into the Peninsula District's program for behaviorally disturbed students last month, and was notified that he will be admitted into the regular classroom in the fall. The other is enrolled in the Tacoma School District. Attorneys for the Peninsula District argues that state law gives the district ample right to expel students. And they point out that Robins had 10 days to appeal Josh's expulsion but didn't do so.
The circumstances of Josh's expulsion were so extraordinary that he and his mother should have been given more than 10 days to appeal the decision, Goss argued in a document he filed with Pierce County Superior Court, asking a judge to overrule the district's decision. The judge denied the request.
Goss has served the district with a notice that he intends to sue for damages on Josh's behalf.
To anyone who heard the boys talk, the plan sounded horrific.
"Just look what's happened across this country in the last 45 days," said Fred Wist, the Pierce County prosecutor's Juvenile Division chief, referring to the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. "None of us have a crystal ball. We have to take those [threats] seriously."
If he had it to do over, he would tell someone about the plot, Josh said recently as he smeared ketchup on a corndog at his mother's espresso stand. Although he wishes he could, "you can't change the past."
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or email@example.com
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