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School Divided Over Players' Suspensions

Two O.C. athletes say they thought their journals wouldn't be read. But they were -- and were perceived as threats against a teacher.

November 11, 2005|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

The controversy over the suspension of two south Orange County high school students for allegedly making death threats against a teacher is expected to be played out at tonight's football game -- on the sidelines.

That's where Tesoro High School seniors Scott McKnight and Sam Smith, who face possible expulsion, will be sitting for writing what officials call threatening statements in a creative-writing assignment -- acts the boys' attorney argues were nothing more than poor judgment.

Their case has divided Tesoro's students and the surrounding community, with campus protests and online support for the boys on one side, and teachers, administrators and others who sympathize with their teacher on the other.

"It has polarized our community," said Dan Burch, principal of the school in Las Flores, east of Mission Viejo.

The controversy has raised questions about freedom of expression and comes at a time when educators are increasingly scrutinizing students' creative work amid fears that violent expression is a precursor to school violence.

McKnight, 17, and Smith, 18, are honor students and top football players at Tesoro, which is 8-1 this season. McKnight, one of the top high school wide receivers in Orange County, has caught the attention of several colleges. Smith is among the county's top defensive backs.

The students' attorney, Jeoffrey Robinson, said McKnight and Smith were assigned to keep journals in English class and assured by teacher Alyssa Di Somma that she would not read them -- a contention that district officials dispute.

When Di Somma collected the journals last month to ensure that students had completed the assignment, she read the boys' entries and found "graphic, disturbing and intense" threats against her, said district spokesman David Smollar.

"In today's world, I think it is stating the obvious that any threat by a student or students be taken very, very seriously," said James A. Fleming, superintendent of the Capistrano Unified School District, which declined to release the journals' contents. "Our teachers are dedicated professionals ... and they must not have to endure situations where they worry about loss of life."

The students were suspended from class and the football team Oct. 20. An expulsion hearing is set for Nov. 28, and the district's Board of Trustees is scheduled to hear the matter Dec. 12, three days after the last football game of the year.

Robinson said "no one in their right mind would write these kinds of things" knowing that someone would read them.

After they learned that Di Somma had read the journals, both boys wrote letters apologizing to her, McKnight and Smith said.

The suspensions have rocked the school, where the boys are regarded for charity work, including building houses for the poor in Mexico with a church group.

"This case exemplifies how the zero-tolerance policy is outdated and too capable of ruining good kids' lives," said Michael Siedlecki, a 17-year-old senior.

In a Nov. 1 letter to Fleming, Vicki Soderberg, president of the Capistrano Unified Education Assn., said: "The students are very popular players on the school's varsity football team, making this an unusually high-profile case on campus. I have a concern that these two football players will either be returned to campus to attend class, and/or be allowed to play out the rest of the football season.

"If the students return to the Tesoro campus, CUEA will consider the safety of the entire faculty at Tesoro to be in jeopardy."

Tonight, Tesoro takes on Irvine's Northwood High. The teams are tied for first place in the Pacific Coast League.

Though an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled last week that the school couldn't prevent McKnight and Smith from playing football while their expulsion case was pending, California Interscholastic Federation rules bar suspended students from participating; if either teen played, Tesoro would forfeit. The team's coach said the two would sit.

News aide Sheena Tahilramani provided research for this report.

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