Southwest Charter School promised it would be different from Kansas City's troubled public schools -- so far it hasn't made the grade.

Unchartered Waters 

Southwest Charter School promised it would be different from Kansas City's troubled public schools -- so far it hasn't made the grade.

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Margaret Crow, Francis' mother, enrolled her son in Southwest Charter because she was wary of Kansas City district schools. A divorced mother of two, Crow moved back to her home state in August after leaving Oklahoma.

"My family knew we were coming back, and they knew he needed a nontraditional school. The move up here was quick, and we didn't have a good chance to apply for private school," says Crow, who heard about the school through word of mouth. "I was really excited about it." She thought the school's project-based approach would keep Francis challenged.

"He has the potential to be a straight-A student, but after the divorce, his grades started slipping," Crow says. "He's a free thinker and very individualized. I looked into sending him to a military school, someplace structured and with good academics, but a military school is not for him."

Francis relishes talking about politics and his hobbies. A punk music fan, he laughs at the irony of songs like Anti-Flag's "Captain Anarchy." "I think it's funny because you can't have a captain of anarchy," he says. "A captain is part of a system of government, and true anarchy is about not having any organization. That's like me saying I'm the president of my anarchy club."

One night recently, Francis stayed up late to make a wallet out of duct tape. He designed it using th Pythagorean theorem to make sure he was folding the tape with the correct right angles. "It came out well," Francis says. "It's got seams, pockets for credit cards and a cigarette case so that cigarettes won't get smashed. I'm more into things like physics and kinetics. I don't like dealing with live things like in biology."

Less than two months into his first semester at Southwest, Francis struggled to fit in. He endured constant harassment and often was chased home or punched and kicked by gangs of fellow students. He argued with administrators. He lost interest in his classes because he was unfamiliar with the project-based method of learning. He saw classmates in the bathroom shooting dice for points and the right to "be with" certain girls. He noticed his fellow students' interest in drugs.

The cumulative effect of all the distractions, Crow says, nudged Francis into trouble. Her son was suspended four times in the first semester -- for yelling in the cafeteria (two weeks); for fighting in the gym (three days); for possession of a cigarette (ten days); and for missing detention (one day). Suspensions were nothing new to Francis -- he was suspended twice in the sixth grade at his last school. But for some reason, Southwest Charter School seemed to bring out the worst -- not the best -- in Francis, who spikes his discussions of philosophy and politics with four-letter words. When discussing his part in the altercations with other students, Francis explains that he doesn't like to hit back because he is a pacifist. "When someone hits you and you're not looking, it's a cowardly act," Francis says. "I've taken a year and a half of kung fu, and I could kick their asses if I wanted to."

Toward the end of his first semester, Francis begged his mother to allow him the privilege of packing some sort of protection.

"He asked me if he could take Mace to school. I said no. He wanted to take a stun gun. I said no."

Then Francis suggested taking a pocketful of pennies and an extra sock. His mother said no. She didn't think a present-day version of a medieval flailing weapon would do the trick. Instead, Margaret Crow took a desperate measure. She gave her son permission to shoot his attackers -- with a disposable camera.

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