By reader acclaim: school suspends Cub Scout over camping utensil

by Walter Olson on October 12, 2009

Annals of zero tolerance: in Newark, Delaware, 6-year-old Zachary Christie took “a camping utensil that can serve as a knife, fork and spoon to school. He was so excited about recently joining the Cub Scouts that he wanted to use it at lunch. School officials concluded that he had violated their zero-tolerance policy on weapons, and Zachary was suspended and now faces 45 days in the district’s reform school.” In other Delaware cases, a school district “expelled a seventh-grade girl who had used a utility knife to cut windows out of a paper house for a class project,” and “a third-grade girl was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it.” [New York Times]

The policies do have their defenders: “‘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,’ said George Evans, the president of the Christina district’s school board. …Charles P. Ewing, a professor of law and psychology at the University at Buffalo Law School who has written about school safety issues, said he favored a strict zero-tolerance approach.” Blog reactions (some via Memeorandum): Sullum/Reason “Hit and Run”, Q and O, BoingBoing, Kate Harding/Salon “Broadsheet”, Below the Beltway, Tom Freeland/North Mississippi Commenter, Lowering the Bar.

P.S. He’s on the Today Show (via Skenazy). Scott Greenfield wants to call it a knife. After worldwide press attention and a large show of local support, the school board reversed its policy and allowed Zachary back (h/t comments). And now: “A 17-year-old Eagle Scout in upstate New York has been barred from stepping foot on school grounds for 20 days — for keeping a 2-inch pocketknife locked in a survival kit in his car.” [Fox News]

{ 27 comments }

1 Ken 10.12.09 at 6:53 pm

“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.”

So, basically, the entire structure of zero tolerance, the entire abandonment of proportionality and discretion, is premised on the same logic that moved Ralphie Parker’s parents in “A Christmas Story”: “you’ll put your eye out.”

2 Bumper 10.12.09 at 6:57 pm

I find it difficult to show even the slightest air of civility toward George Evans and Charles P. Ewing save to say that based on their pontifications they both are suffering from advanced cases of the Dunning–Kruger effect.

3 nevins 10.12.09 at 7:46 pm

Anyone who advocates zero tolerance as an accepted policy is a cretin. Life is full of choices and decisions. Some are difficult, some will give critics something to complain about, sometimes decisions completely devoid of race, gender, class and the like might be used by some to advance platforms of race, gender, class etc. But if you want to be a leader, an administrator, a human with balls, then you have got to make a reasoned judgement. Anyone hiding behind zero tolerance has the spine of a jellyfish, the testicles of a fly, and the brain of a turnip.

4 Doug 10.12.09 at 8:02 pm

The school board has the brains of a gnat. Clearly is a difference between a thug who should be squashed like a bug and an enthusiastic cub scout. How often has any parent received a phone call saying their child has had his eyes put out by a cake knife?

5 Bob Lipton 10.12.09 at 8:52 pm

The purpose of any education is to provide the student with information, and the means of procuring that information, which will yield knowledge; techniques for arranging that knowledge into systems which yields judgment; and the examples of use of that judgment to determine action,

Zero tolerance shows us that the people in charge of instructing our children in judgment have none that they feel competent to use. So they are charged with teaching our children with something they know nothing about.

It’s a good thing they all have degrees in educatiion.

Bob

6 Bill Alexander 10.12.09 at 9:06 pm

It seems to me in West Side Story the Jets and Sharks were using cake knives and butter knives, weren’t they?

7 Jay Markowitz 10.12.09 at 10:19 pm

“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.”

Fingers still are the number one eye-damaging tools since the dawn of man. MITTENS FOR ALL!

8 kimsch 10.12.09 at 11:01 pm

They are afraid to make a decision. They are afraid that they will be accused of favoring one group of students over another, afraid they will be accused of enforcing the rules more on one group of students than the other group. They are afraid of being called racist.

So they decide to not decide. Zero tolerance allows them to to not have to make a decision. In other words, they wimp out.

9 John Fembup 10.13.09 at 4:25 am

I have been an advocate of rope since elementary school.

In the state where I grew up (I won’t name it, but it starts with “P”), all pupils were hog-tied to their desks at 9:00 and left there – except for supervised lunch drills and restroom breaks – until the end of the school day. At 3:00 everyone was untied and escorted to the doors. I don’t recall a single incident requiring a call to parents that their child no longer had two good seeing eyes because there was a scuffle and someone pulled out a knife. Not a single incident.

Rope is the answer.

10 rxc 10.13.09 at 4:53 am

No one has commented on the note in the article that the reason these school systems have adopted this rule is because of disparate impact issues – they had been using discretion to discipline students with weapons and found that they were mostly disciplining minorities and other students of color, and this opened them up to charges of racial discrimination. To avoid charges of racism, everyone needs to be treated equally, so now we have “zero-tolerance”, and silliness.

11 Todd Rogers 10.13.09 at 7:15 am

Strict application of zero tolerance policies are far more defensible in front of juries. It’s not about preventing another Columbine; it’s about preventing the lawsuits that came after Columbine.

12 Thelma McCall 10.13.09 at 8:55 am

I have to question; who do we have taking care of our children. If the adults in charge (administration etc,) can’t make better judgement calls than this totally ridiculous one, then what can they teach our impressionable young children about good and bad choices. It appears to me that implementing a fairly good law and making it a hide behind cop out to keep from dealing with situations by merit is as bad as predator stealing our children’s hopes, dreams and self esteem. What this young child, who is still a baby to most of us, was trying to accomplish by becoming a member of an organization that has been in existence for some odd centuries, may lead to him to becoming one of most prominent leaders in this nation as it has for many. Taking this proud moment from his life is the most destructive thing I have ever heard of in any school system. Come on country focus on the real problems and let our children grow. Just a suggestion to Mr. George Evans and Mr. Charles P. Ewing, next time confiscate, explain to parents and make it clear and if it is a first time incident, send out Memo’s in clarity and therefore if there is a repetitive problem with the same [family, not just the CHILD] deal with it in the manner that your No-Tolerance law has been set forth for using as much humanity as possible because there are mitigating circumstances for different incidents and this law is not a one size fits all.
Thelma M. (X-Preschool Teacher/Preschool Assistant Director
Arlington, VA

13 Todd Rogers 10.13.09 at 9:21 am

This story has been brought to you by the very same people who want to give us a public-option. Ronaldus Magnus is looking down on us and shaking his head in disbelief.

14 Robert 10.13.09 at 12:51 pm

The fact that the parents believe he deserves special treatment because he belongs to a particular religious cult (the “Boy Scouts”) is enough reason for me to side with the schools.

15 A.W. 10.13.09 at 4:34 pm

I think what it comes down to is this. We should have three tiers in regard to “weapons.”

1) Guns, bombs, missile launchers, etc.

2) everything else that can be used as a weapon (including knives).

For category 1) you get caught with it, i would say 99.9% of the time you should get in serious trouble.

But category 2? no. there shoudl be much more discretion involved.

Look, these zero tolerance policies were put in place over fears of a columbine-type massacre. The problem is that then they defined it down to include things like knives, and then even things like butter knives.

well, last time I checked even a machete is not terribly well suited for a massacre. you need a gun, or something more deadly.

And of course there should be amnesty when a person voluntarily turns it in. if you accidentally bring something to school you shouldn’t, and unprompted turn the weapon in, no harm, no foul. i have heard of guys accidentally bringing a gun to school because it was in their trunk and forgot, and immediately telling the principal and having this harm their lives.

But also, dare i say, we need more litigation. we need people to sue school districts and we need the courts to step in and declare limits to this insanity. I am not a big believer in expansive due process rights, but… really, seriously how can you throw the kid in jail without a violation of fundamental fairness? This reminds me of that 13 year old girl stip searched because she had advil. the Supreme court rationally said, “sure, drugs are a problem, but advil? are you kidding me?” okay, that is not a quote but you get the idea.

And of course fear of litigation is part of it, too. schools adopt stiff penalties because they know that if a kid does bring a weapon and hurts anyone else, they could be held liable. they adopt “zero tolerance” both because it sounds tough, and because then no one can claim that there is any bias in enforcement. That is why the real solution to the problem is, contra the purpose of this site, is people getting active with litigation.

Think of it like the seinfeld sexual harrassment case. a guy recites dialogue from an episode of seinfeld, gets fired because the company was afraid of being sued for sexual harrassment. so he fought back, suing the company for wrongful termination and won. that was good litigation, because it told companies all across the US that sexual harassment hysteria has a price, too. Our freedom of speech is more curtailed than it should be, but its probably markedly better because of that litigation.

16 Nathan Shumate 10.13.09 at 4:51 pm

Last I knew, school boards were elected. I’ve got my own zero-tolerance policy in place: the first time I hear of a zero-tolerance abuse in our school district, I plan to find the school board members who approve of it, then do what I can to turn the cretins out.

17 kimsch 10.13.09 at 5:48 pm

And every elementary school supply list includes scissors.

18 Bob Lipton 10.13.09 at 6:35 pm

I once ran over a friend with a bicycle. And on another occasion I was stabbed with a pencil.

Bob

19 SeaSpray 10.13.09 at 9:06 pm

I think this is appalling!

As a parent.. I would refuse to send my innocent SIX year old to a reform school. I would be looking for a public apology that restores honor to this child… this impressionable child.

I am not a lawsuit person but let me tell you… I would seek legal council if this situation were not *immediately* remedied! This is a child. Children that age are happy to go to school..proud of their activities… and they are CHILDREN. And lobby for a change in the system… bring good out of bad.

Surely these supposedly educated adults have the capability to be discerning regarding imminent danger.

If anything… then put responsibility on the parents to know of everything their child is bringing to school.. you know.. the adults.

I would never have thought of that as a potential weapon.

Shame on this school district!

20 Robert 10.14.09 at 9:48 am

The kid is allowed back in! (The news today, Wednesday).

This is OUTRAGEOUS. Because he was a member of a particular CHURCH/CULT (the “Boy Scouts”), they made a provision for him.

This sickens me. While I think the rule was foolish, using a religious test as a basis of a decision is FAR MORE UNAMERICAN than that rule was.

Anyone who doesn’t see this is a zealot.

21 Nathan Shumate 10.14.09 at 10:42 am

@Robert: And probably a racist, too!

22 A.W. 10.14.09 at 10:58 am

Robert,

You’re joking, right? its hard to tell on the internet.

Anyway the story is here:

http://www.delawareonline.com/article/20091013/NEWS/91013057&referrer=FRONTPAGECAROUSEL

23 Frank C ostanza 10.14.09 at 12:34 pm

Examples of zero tolerance I’ve read about recently:
A young student who was expelled for getting a cake knife from the school kitchen to cut his birthday cake.

A baseball player who was arrested for having a bat in his car parked on school grounds. The bat was part of a trophy he had won.

And a youngster who was expelled for having a drawing of a gun in his sketchbook.

I wonder how many teachers have objects that could be classified as “weapons” on their persons daily. Nail files? Swiss Army knives? Don’t forget, zero tolerance rules doesn’t apply to teachers and administrators. Sort of like Congress and health insurance.

24 Deoxy 10.14.09 at 2:10 pm

As has been pointed out, “zero-tolerence” was NOT adopted to prevent Columbine-style violence, it was adopted to prevent and defend against lawsuits, end of story. Any attempt to defend it on other grounds will end up sounding silly.

But then, this particular silly defense is PARTICULARLY silly:

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

A knife? How about a PENCIL? Or a pen? Scissors? A small ruler? A FINGER?!?!? That particular silly person is a bit beyond the usual in terms of idiocy.

25 A.W. 10.14.09 at 2:18 pm

Deoxy

Well, maybe i am misinformed. but it always seemed to me that zero tolerance fever swept this country after columbine.

One way or the other, there has to be some pushback. and i guess it is on the courts to do it, although to be fair it seems this particular school district came to its senses.

And totally agree on the dangers of things that have to be there. There is no way to eliminate all sharp objects from school, people.

26 Georg Felis 10.14.09 at 3:01 pm

I hereby nominate Ken for a Comment of the Thread Award. At the current rate of idiocy, schools will declare Sporks to be weapons.

27 Bumper 10.15.09 at 1:02 pm

Zero tolerance has it’s roots in racial discrimination. School administrators were purportedly punishing minority students harsher than non-minority students, so here came the law suits and Zero Intelligence was the response.

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