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Larry Fillmore and his daughter, Megan, stand in front of Mannheim High School, where Megan was disciplined with an in-school suspension for fighting after being punched by another student. Her father says she should be able to defend herself without repercussions.
Larry Fillmore and his daughter, Megan, stand in front of Mannheim High School, where Megan was disciplined with an in-school suspension for fighting after being punched by another student. Her father says she should be able to defend herself without repercussions. (Nancy Montgomery / S&S)

MANNHEIM, Germany — She’s 3 inches shy of 5 feet tall and weighs in at 105 pounds. But when an argument with a boy more than a foot taller took a nasty turn over lunch by the shoppette, and he punched her, Megan Fillmore knew what to do.

“I took my jacket off. I threw my bag down,” she said. “And I hit him back.”

“I was raised to defend myself,” she explained.

But that was the wrong response, according to Department of Defense Dependents Schools policy. Her retaliatory punch, and the ensuing scuffle landed her, along with the boy, in an in-school suspension at Mannheim High School.

“The girl should have just walked away,” said David Ruderman, a DODDS spokesman in Wiesbaden, Germany. School officials, he said, “hoped she’d learned her lesson.”

Larry Fillmore, Megan’s father, a retired sergeant first class and current Army computer security chief, said he believes it’s the policy and school that are wrong. Fillmore is outraged that Megan, 18 and a senior, was punished for practicing “self-defense” and what he says is a fundamental human right.

His daughter, he said, was walking away when she was struck. “There’s no fighting in school. I agree with that,” Fillmore said. “But if you’re attacked, you have a right to defend yourself.”

This is a position he’s held through the rearing of three daughters, including after he was widowed seven years ago. All of them put his teachings into practice, he said, when confronted at school. “Every one of them, and I’m very proud of that,” he said. “And in May, both of [the older ones] graduate from college. I raised the girls to take care of themselves so that I don’t have to worry about them when they go out in the world. They are to defend themselves at any time. I’m a firm believer in that.”

Fillmore asked the principal to reconsider. No dice. Then he appealed to the local school superintendent. Same answer.

“The young man started the physical portion of this fight, but Megan was also a participant,” superintendent Elizabeth Walker wrote. “This does not indicate that we are teaching students that they have to accept abuse. Our responsibility is to teach students that there are alternatives for solving disagreements.”

The disagreement began, according to Megan and several student witness statements, over Megan’s dislike of the boy’s girlfriend. Megan said she then took a call on her cell phone, and then the boy, who is apparently a junior, “punched me in the face.”

There is little disagreement about who hit first. Most student witness accounts said it was the boy, and school officials agreed.

School officials declined to be interviewed, Ruderman said. It was his understanding, he said, that Megan, though tiny, became the aggressor, even if she didn’t strike the first blow. “She proceeded to beat this kid up,” Ruderman said. “She was not just protecting herself. I understand he had some scratches the young lady didn’t have.”

Megan said she was muddy and marked when she went to report the fight to the vice principal after it ended. She said the vice principal, Joe Malloy, told her she should have put the boy in a “bear hug” to prevent his hitting her.

But Ruderman said Malloy denied having said anything about a bear hug.

Ruderman said the policy is just common sense, necessary for a safe learning environment. “If someone is picking on you, go away from them,” he said. “If you have to push somebody to get them off you, our administrators can make adjustments. This is not the Bible. It doesn’t say turn the other cheek.”

The policy is in keeping with those of many school districts across the United States. Fighting “will result in the suspension from school of all students involved,” according to a Detroit, Mich., school Web site. “Whenever a student feels threatened or thinks a fight is likely to occur, that student must report the circumstances to either his/her counselor, teacher, the Student Development Center, or the Main Office before anything happens. This is a student obligation.”

“There may be parents telling kids, ‘You’ve got to be tough — punch them back,’” Ruderman said. “This is not the way to do it.”

Fillmore, 60, also has had issues with the school in the past over what he views as heavy-handedness and rigidity in dealing with his daughter. “I’m very opinionated,” he said. “If I don’t say something, I can’t sleep at night.”

He remains convinced his daughter was twice wronged, by being hit, and being punished. “Here we are, fighting all over the world for people’s freedom,” he said. “And my daughter doesn’t have rights?”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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