Cub Scout utensil gets boy, 6, school suspension
First-grader brought it to eat his lunch with; now he’s facing reform school
By Mike Celizic
Dressed in a button-down shirt and tie and speaking calmly and articulately, first-grader Zachary Christie hardly looks or acts like the sort of kid who should be spending 45 days in reform school. But, thanks to a zero-tolerance policy, that’s where Zachary’s Delaware school system wants him to go after he made the mistake of taking his favorite camping utensil to school.
A Swiss Army-type combination of fork, spoon, bottle opener and knife, the tool has been Zachary’s favorite ever since he got it to take on Cub Scout camping expeditions. “He eats dinner with it, breakfast and everything else, so it never occurred to him that this would have been something wrong to do,” the 6-year-old’s mother, Debbie Christie, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday from Newark, Del.
‘Can I have that?’
Zachary, an A student who sometimes wears a shirt and tie to school just because he likes to, told Vieira he put the tool in his pocket on Sept. 29 for a very simple reason: “To eat lunch with. I had absolutely no idea this was going to happen. I wasn’t thinking about this. I was thinking about having lunch with it.”
But when the tool fell out of his pocket on the bus and he walked off the vehicle with it in his hand, a teacher intercepted him. “She said, ‘Can I have that?’ ” Zachary recalled.
What Zachary didn’t realize was that he had fallen afoul of the Christina School District’s zero-tolerance policy toward weapons in school, one of many such policies implemented in the wake of such incidents as the Columbine High School massacre. The policy does not allow teachers or administrators to take into account intentions or the character of the student; if a student has a knife, suspension and subsequent assignment to the district’s “alternative placement school” — aka reform school — is mandatory.
Christina, which, according to its Web site, is the largest school district in Delaware with some 17,000 students, made its policy zero-tolerance because of concerns over racial discrimination. Studies have shown in other districts that when school officials are given discretion over such cases, African-American students are disciplined at a disproportionately high rate.
“The idea was to avoid discriminating against any student and to treat all students the same,” George Evans, president of the Christina school board, told NBC News.
While some experts favor such zero-tolerance policies, others question their efficacy, saying there is no indication that they cut down on violent incidents in schools. One of them, national school safety consultant Kenneth Trump, told NBC News, “The school administrators have to be able to administer consequences and still have some discretion to fit the totality of the circumstances.”
The totality of Zachary’s circumstances was that he had no idea that it was wrong to take his favorite camping tool to class. When the teacher asked for it when he got off the bus, he handed it over, unaware that he was already in serious trouble. He went to class while his principal called his mother.
“She said that I needed to come to the school immediately; that Zachary had brought a dangerous weapon into school, and I needed to come and pick him up. He would be suspended for five days pending a disciplinary action committee hearing. She said that he had a knife,” Christie told Vieira.
When his mother arrived at the John R. Downes Elementary School with her fiance, Lee Irving, Zachary was called from his first-grade classroom to join them.
“When they called my name up, I was like, ‘Uh-oh,’ ” he said.
Home school, not reform school
Zachary was suspended immediately for five school days. At the end of the suspension, he and his mother appeared before the district’s disciplinary action committee, where his principal and others spoke up for his good character. It didn’t matter. The committee’s hands were tied. The rules said he had brought a knife to school and would have to spend 45 days in the reform school.
Christie decided she would not send her son to that school. Instead, she has been home schooling Zachary while waiting for an opportunity to address the district’s board of education, which was to meet Tuesday night.
“I understand why they have it, but I don’t agree with the implementation of it,” Christie said of the zero-tolerance policy. “I think they need to look at the age, maturity, intent, situation; bring in the teachers who know the child or the principal, and allow them to make the first call in these situations,” she said. “Looking at other schools’ codes of conduct in the Delaware Valley, their first step would have been a suspension.”
Christie assured Vieira that her son is well aware of the necessity of not taking anything new to school without first asking and is not a threat to anyone. She hopes the school board will agree with her.
“I hope that they expunge his record and allow him to go back to Downes immediately,” she said of the board. “I think he has had an over-excess of education on this issue. I’m hoping that out of all of this the policy changes and that no other child is affected negatively by what is supposed to keep them all safe.”
Vieira asked Zachary if he’s nervous about the prospect of eventually returning to his school.
“I’m not very nervous,” Zachary said. “I like being home-schooled. It’s happy in some ways; it’s sad in some ways. Sometimes I’m strict, and sometimes I can get into my serious mode. I can get into my happy mode. It’s just kind of fun being home-schooled, but I’m not scared to go back.”
And what has he learned from everything that’s happened to him?
“To always ask before taking something new into school,” he said.