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Education Reporter

Eagle Scout and Cub Scout Punished under 'Zero Tolerance' Rules
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Bizarre discipline incidents in New York State and Delaware this fall highlighted the problems with "zero tolerance" policies that impose strict punishments on students who accidentally commit technical violations of school policies.

Matthew Whalen, a senior at Lansingburgh High School in Troy, New York, kept a two-inch-long utility knife in his car, as part of a survival kit including a sleeping bag, water, and a ready-to-eat meal. Whalen is an Eagle Scout and the recipient of a Life-Saving Heroism award from Boy Scouts of America. As a Boy Scout, he is well-schooled in knife safety and the practical uses for knives in camping and other outdoor activities. The tiny knife, which never left his locked car until a school official asked Whalen to go get it, earned Whalen a 20-day suspension which will remain on his permanent record.

Another student told a school administrator that Whalen had a knife in his car. Whalen immediately acknowledged that he had the knife when the administrator asked him about it. Whalen's initial five-day suspension was lengthened by another 15 days when Lansingburgh Central School District Superintendent George J. Goodwin reviewed the case. In a written statement, Goodwin said that the school district has "an established policy of zero tolerance with respect to the possession of weapons of any kind on school property or in school buildings."

The district's "zero tolerance" policy, however, appears nowhere in its written policies. Instead, the district's rule book is silent on zero tolerance, and the high school's policies say that "students may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from school," for engaging in violent conduct, which can include merely "possessing a weapon." Clearly, this rule allows suspensions but does not mandate them, and leaves the length of the suspension to the superintendent's discretion. (Fox News, 10-13-09, 10-18-09)

Supt. Goodwin told the Albany Times Union that he believed the punishment was "appropriate and fair." "Sometimes young people do things they may not see as serious. We look at any possession of any type of knife as serious."

In November, the local school board officially refused Matthew's family's request that his suspension be removed from his record. The Whalens plan to appeal the decision to the state Board of Education, a process that will probably take about a year. Happily for Matthew, an admissions official from his dream school, West Point, told the Whalens that West Point is unlikely to weigh his "zero-tolerance" suspension very heavily when they decide whether or not to admit him, given the details of the case. (Troy Record News, 11-20-09)

The other recent incident, in Newark, Delaware, concerned a six-year-old boy who brought a Cub Scout camping utensil to school. The boy, Zachary Christie, recently joined Cub Scouts and was so excited about his new utensil that he wanted to use it to eat school lunch. The utensil folds out and serves as a combination spoon, fork, and knife. School officials charged Zachary with violating the district's zero-tolerance policy, and sentenced him to 45 days in the district's reform school.

Christina School District's policy instructs school officials to suspend students who bring "weapons" onto campus, "regardless of the possessor's intent." George Evans, president of the district school board, defended the school's decision to suspend Zachary. "There is no parent who wants to get a phone call where they hear that their child no longer has two good seeing eyes because there was a scuffle and someone pulled out a knife," he said. Zachary's mother called the school's actions "out of control" and argued that her son is "not some sort of threat to his classmates."

Debbie Christie chose to homeschool her son instead of sending him to reform school. After the story received national media attention and Mrs. Christie collected tens of thousands of signatures on a petition asking the school board to relent, the board voted to reduce the mandated punishment for kindergarteners and 1st-graders. These young students will now receive suspensions of three to five days, instead of 45. Zachary was allowed to return to school, but his mother, along with other parents, still believes the school's policies need to change. Zachary told the New York Times that he learned from the incident "to always ask before taking something new into school." (New York Times, 10-11-09, MSNBC.com, 10-14-09)

Soon after the Matthew Whalen and Zachary Christie incidents, the New York Times ran a story on another zero-tolerance incident, under the headline, "25 Chicago students arrested for a middle-school food fight." Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Michael Smerconish reminisced about a very different headline from 33 years ago: "35 students reprimanded in food-throwing incident." Smerconish was one of the 35.

In his recent editorial, Smerconish linked the recent food-fight arrests to Zachary Christie's story, and called for a return to common sense. "While protecting kids post-Columbine and Virginia Tech is serious business, no would-be school shooter has been deterred by the arrest of two dozen kids tossing mystery meat across a Chicago cafeteria or the tough love dispensed to a 1st-grader who put a Cub Scouts tool in his backpack. School districts would be better served by separating the high jinks from high crimes," said Smerconish. (Philadelphia Inquirer, 11-29-09)

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