As he waited for his first disciplinary appeal hearing to begin this fall, the sixth-grade student began sobbing.

He was barely 11 years old. He had been expelled again — for the rest of the school year — from his Bakersfield elementary school district, this time for alleged sexual battery and obscenity.

The offense: “Slapping a girl on the buttock and running away laughing,” according to school documents.

The boy’s pro bono attorney, a retired FBI agent, was appalled.

“This, on his record, puts him right up there next to the kid who raped somebody behind the backstop,” said Tim McKinley, who spent 26 years in the bureau, much of it locking up murderous members of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

For the boy’s local school board in Kern County, the punishment fits the crime. It upheld a panel’s initial approval of expulsion.

For McKinley, the discipline is dramatic overkill sure to prove counterproductive for both the child and the community at large.

These days such disagreements are hardly unusual. In California’s southern Central Valley, Kern County is at the leading edge of a contentious debate over where to draw the line in exacting school discipline. Teachers want a safe environment in which to teach. Parents want to know their children are secure and not getting bullied. And no-nonsense school districts in this conservative oil and agribusiness region are suspending and expelling students for a broad range of indiscretions.

Meanwhile, a national reform movement is growing, fueled by reports that suspension and expulsion policies are disproportionately targeting minorities, and doing more harm than good by killing kids’ attachment to school and putting many on a fast track to failure.

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