Mya, a sophomore at Doherty Memorial High School, was recently expelled for a year for having a small amount of marijuana in her locker.

It was a first-time offense, but according to the Worcester public schools' zero tolerance policy, a yearlong suspension is automatic for infractions involving weapons, assaults and drugs unless there are mitigating circumstances, such as a disability that might have contributed to the infraction.

Mya has a long-term anxiety disorder that has kept her on a special education plan, but her disorder was ruled out by school officials as a contributing factor in her possessing marijuana on school grounds. It’s hard to disagree with that conclusion, even if the student claims she was told by friends that marijuana would reduce her anxiety.

The important issue here is why the system took such a harsh stance against a first-time offender. Public schools are not correctional facilities, although some Worcester school officials and educators appear to think they are, given their seeming preference to increase police presence in schools and to use the courts to deal with student behavioral issues.

Educators have an obligation to help young people learn and grow, to help them acquire the strength, wisdom and understanding necessary to overcome life’s adversities on the way to fulfilling their dreams and their obligations as members of our democracy. That is the educator’s basic mission. Everything else - good grades, etc. - flows from that.

As such, the disciplinary response to a student’s misstep should never be formulaic. It should be on an individual basis with plenty of room for discretion.

Both Mya and her mother, Judy Rajotte, are adamant that the drug infraction was a first-time offense. Ms. Rajotte noted that in the only hearing she had with the School Department, school officials acknowledged that was the case. In addition, she said, school officials also said Mya had no previous behavioral issues.

Mya is also an honors-level student, whose competitive grades allowed her to participate in the system’s new Innovation Pathways program, which allows 10th-graders at Doherty and Burncoat high schools to pursue technical studies in a field of their choice.

As part of that program, Mya, who is interested in nursing, has been putting in six extra hours a week, attending after-school courses at the Worcester Technical High School. If she continues with the program, she will be on track to earn a nursing certification, or a pre-apprenticeship in that field. She would also be eligible to take two college courses before graduation and to do a 100-hour paid summer nursing internship.

All of that is being jeopardized now, since she cannot continue with the program during her suspension.

Superintendent Maureen Binienda agrees that disciplinary cases should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. And while she wasn’t a part of the suspension decision, she said she had received no information from the school to counter the family’s claim that this was Mya’s first infraction and that she had no other behavioral issues at the school.

Nevertheless, Ms. Binienda said, all students are well aware of the consequences of violating the school’s zero tolerance policy, and the fact the student brought the drug to school raises other red flags.

“You can’t bring it to school, and that’s the part that worries me. Once you bring it to school, you wonder why,” she said, noting that it raises serious concerns about the young woman’s frequency and level of use.

I agree those are concerns to be considered; however, the way to address them would be to engage the mother, school adjustment counselors and others in determining just how much of a risk the student is to herself or others.

But no such intervention was ever done with Mya, according to Ms. Rajotte, who said her daughter’s use of marijuana was a surprise to her.

“I am not happy with my daughter for what she did," she said. "But given that she is an honor roll student with no history of behavioral issues, I think a yearlong suspension is a little severe for her first infraction.”

Meanwhile, Mya said she is “conflicted” and “confused” by what has happened. She understands that what she did was wrong and that there is a penalty for that transgression, but forcing her out of school for an entire year doesn't seem right. She noted that initially the school system had placed her on a 10-day suspension, while they sought to determine whether her disability was a factor in the infraction. During that 10-day period, she kept up with her schoolwork by asking a friend to bring her the classroom assignments she was missing. Some of her teachers also kept in touch, providing her with work she was missing and helping her to keep her head up.

“I have not been sleeping. I am having headaches and I am stressed out,” she said. “But it is something I worry about inside, while I try to stay calm outside. The thing is, I don’t like being vulnerable to people and showing different emotions. I get that is what people want to see, but I can’t be vulnerable around people.”

Her disposition is understandable.

She was adopted when she was 2 years old by Ms. Rajotte and her now ex-husband. Over the year, the young woman has had an up-and-down relationship with her biological mother, with whom she would like to be close.

Her biological mother has had other children, two of whom came up for adoption not so long ago, and Mya wasn’t too happy that Ms. Rajotte, who has a younger daughter and has gone through a divorce, wasn’t willing to adopt the younger siblings.

I mention Mya’s background not to drum up sympathy for her, but to remind readers that the lives of many young people are complex and challenging. And yet in Mya’s case, having been separated from her biological parents and her adoptive father, she has managed - no doubt thanks to her adoptive parents - to maintain a solid academic record throughout her school career.

Is this a student that we should be so ready to kick out of school for a year? If the answer is yes, then it is high time we take another look at the Worcester public schools' zero tolerance policy, which was drafted and implemented out of fear rather than on sound educational doctrine, and which time and time again has been used to kick out some kids when they are down.