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Education Reporter

Zero Tolerance Nonsense Continues
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Recent disciplinary actions taken against students in three different states once again highlight disproportionate punishment for minor or unintended infractions under zero tolerance weapon policies in schools. Even when school policies permit leniency based on context, some officials insist on taking a hard line for petty violations.

No Toy Guns Even on Sunday

In Kansas, fifth-grader Alyssa Cornish was suspended in mid-September for the remainder of the semester for playing with another child's toy gun on the playground of her school. Shawnee Mission school district officials said it did not matter that the incident occurred on a Sunday when school was not in session. The school board declined to modify the suspension period for the straight-A student council member, saying that the rules against weapons of any kind on school grounds are ironclad.

The girl's mother, Tracey Cornish, expressed concern that the long-term suspension would make it difficult for Alyssa to catch up during the second half of the school year. "She's very bright," Cornish said, "but is she going to be able to walk back in after four months and be where the rest of those children are academically?"

High-School Hunter Forgot Gun in Her Trunk

In Montana, teenage hunter Demari DeReu forgot to remove an unloaded hunting rifle from her car before returning to her high school after the Thanksgiving break. The rifle was locked in a case in the trunk and there was no ammunition in the car.

The 16-year-old remembered the gun was still in her car when school officials announced a lockdown for a routine contraband search on December 1. DeReu told school officials about her predicament before the search began, expecting to be allowed to move her car off school grounds or take the gun home, as a teacher had previously told her would be permitted under such a circumstance. Instead, she was escorted from her classroom and informed that she would be suspended.

School District 6 policy, which is based on the federal Gun-Free Schools Act and state law, requires a minimum one-year expulsion for bringing a firearm to school, but the board of trustees has latitude to modify the punishment. In this instance, board members unanimously ruled to allow DeReu to return to class and to expunge her record at the end of the school year.

Near the end of the hearing, some board members tried to reassure DeReu, an honor roll student and student council member, that her college career would not be affected by the incident. An emotional DeReu explained the suspension had already harmed her academic record. "At this point I don't have any teachers, I'm teaching myself. It's not fair for me to hear this isn't going to affect my college education when I already have two Fs," she said in tears.

Lunch Bag Mix-Up

Senior Ashley Smithwick of Sanford, North Carolina found herself expelled and charged with a misdemeanor possession of a weapon on school grounds when her principal found a small paring knife in her lunchbox. Smithwick said she accidentally grabbed her father's lunchbox instead of her own that day, and her father corroborated her account. "It's just an honest mistake," said Joe Smithwick. "That was supposed to be my lunch because it was a whole apple." (Father and daughter have matching lunchboxes.)

Lee County Superintendent Jeff Moss stood by the suspension meted out by Smithwick's principal, who had leeway to consider the situation and determine appropriate discipline according to school policy. When a reporter pressed Moss about an exception in the policy for utensils used solely for food preparation, he responded with his own question. "If you look at everything in your kitchen drawer, would you classify that as OK to take to school?" asked Moss.

Smithwick is being permitted to complete her coursework online and graduate with her class, but is worried the episode will affect her college prospects. "When you have a criminal record, no school's going to look at you," she said. She had hoped to play college soccer as well. "I'm good at playing soccer and that talent is just wasted now," she lamented. (nbc17.com, 1-5-11; wnd.com, 12-7-10; wral.com, 12-28-10; flatheadbeacon.com, 12-14-10)

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