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Schools: 82 felonies reviewed this year

MANATEE — Manatee students accused of committing felonies off campus have been re-assigned to alternative schools 62 times this school year, out of 82 cases reviewed by district administrators, officials say.

Almost two-thirds of the re-assignments — 40 — came after students were arrested on weapons-related charges, said Mike McCann, the district’s head of dropout prevention and alternative schools. That’s more than all other crime categories combined.

Five students were transferred this year after being arrested on drug charges; five on battery charges; five on gang-related violations, four on sex offense charges; and three on kidnapping charges.

Since July 2006, school district policy has been to give the superintendent the power to discipline students immediately for off-campus arrests, most often with a re-assignment to Horizons Academy, the district’s alternative school.

But the policy does not cover all felony arrests. Only arrests involving weapons, the selling of drugs, sex offenses and physical violence are reviewed for possible discipline, McCann said.

If an offense happens in school, transfer is not as immediate as with an off-campus incident review. Instead, offenses on campus are dealt with by a school’s principal, who has the discretion to decide on suspensions, or ask for an expulsion review.

That explains why Palmetto High School student Marquis Sanders, a suspect in a fatal home invasion Feb. 1, was allowed to stay in school — and play football for two seasons — after three earlier arrests on felony charges.

Sanders, 18, has been in the Manatee County jail since his Feb. 2 arrest on a murder charge in the shooting death of 55-year-old Maria Lerma in a home invasion robbery, according to Bradenton police reports.

In the wake of the shooting, Sanders’ felony record came to light and has led to plans by district officials to review policies dealing with student athletes and extra-curricular activity participants who have been arrested on felony charges.

Sanders’ first arrest took place in 2006, when he was a freshman at Manatee High School. Police arrested him after a female classmate said he had exposed himself to her during class.

McCann said the incident was reviewed by Manatee High officials and Sanders was suspended for 10 days. But district administrators never reviewed the case because the handling of in-school incidents is at the discretion of the principal. The lewd and lascivious exhibition charge was later reduced and Sanders was placed by the court in a diversion program, McCann said.

In 2007, Sanders twice had felony arrests reviewed by school officials. On March 10, 2007, police arrested Sanders after finding crack cocaine in a car he was driving.

Five months later, police again arrested him on a felony criminal mischief charge after an officer saw him spray-painting signs and shooting windows out with a paint ball gun on the Manatee High School campus, causing $1,000 in estimated damage.

Under the district’s off-campus arrest policy, both cases were reviewed but neither rose to the level of re-assignment, McCann said. In the drug case, police charged Sanders with crack possession, but not with selling it. The police report said Sanders told officers he was trying to sell the cocaine found in the car, but a court later threw out the case.

“So it was like it never happened,” McCann said.

School officials are planning a series of meetings to create a districtwide policy for dealing with felony arrests of athletes, including possible background checks and creation of a database of student athletes’ arrest records.

Manatee Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal said they will also consider banning any student with a felony arrest from playing on a district sports team, or from participating in extra-curricular activities.

“The time is right for this kind of discussion,” McGonegal said.

Manatee School Board member Harry Kinnan agreed.

“Playing sports is a privilege, not a right, so I would agree that anyone arrested has given up that right. That goes for extra-curricular activities, too,” Kinnan said. “So I would welcome giving the superintendent the chance to present us with an appropriate plan for the board’s review.”

Whatever the outcome, the policies in place right now are not sitting well with Bill Leebens, who has a son at Lakewood Ranch High School and a daughter at Center Academy.

“I am outraged and concerned, not only for my children, but I am concerned about how many more kids with these kinds of records are in our schools,” he said.

Sanders is one of two Palmetto High students charged in Lerma’s death on Feb. 1.

Police reports say Sanders and Ta Heem Blake, 17, stormed Lerma’s house in the 900 block of 25th Street East, Bradenton, armed with weapons. Reports say Blake fatally shot Lerma during the robbery. Detectives arrested Sanders the next day on a murder charge. Police reports say he put a gun to a person during the robbery.

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