The Saga of the Suspended 6-Year-Old

A zero-tolerance policy almost meant a 45-day suspension for bringing a camping tool to lunch.

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Last week, 6-year-old Zachary Christie, a student at Downes Elementary School in Newark, Del., decided to bring a camping utensil that can serve as a fork, spoon, bottle opener, and folding knife to school to use at lunch. He had recently joined the Cub Scouts and was excited to use the tool, but when it was handed over to the principal, he received a 45-day suspension in the district's reform school. The school board has since overturned the decision, the Associated Press reports, but the episode could lead the district—and other schools across the country with zero-tolerance policies—to re-evaluate such procedures.

The decision by school officials to suspend Zachary was based on the district's zero-tolerance policy on weapons. Despite protests from Zachary and his family, administrators at the Christina School District initially defended the punishment, saying they had no choice. Last night's unanimous school board vote let Zachary return to school today and reduced the punishment for kindergartners or first graders who take potential weapons to school or commit violent offenses to a suspension ranging from three to five days.

But not everyone believes the district went too far. Jill Kneisley, who runs the special-education programs at Jennie Smith Elementary in Newark, told the AP that if Zachary or another student had been hurt by the knife, the district would have taken the blame. There is also concern among school leaders that softening the disciplinary terms might send an inconsistent or biased message to other students.

Zachary's mother started a website, helpzachary.com, to recruit supporters to pressure the school board and superintendent to reverse the decision. After last night's vote, she wrote, "It is our hope that by working with the school board and local lawmakers, we'll be able to overturn and do away with all zero-tolerance policies and put into place policies that will take into consideration a student's age, intent, disciplinary history, and other circumstances that arise on a case by case basis."

Many districts nationwide have adopted zero-tolerance policies on weapons to combat student violence after the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, but debate has grown over whether the policies have become too severe. Education experts say the policies were initially treated more subjectively, but when studies revealed that under this system more African-Americans were expelled or suspended than other students for the same offenses, officials removed discretion from the disciplinary policies.

The Delaware district says more changes to its code of conduct are possible in the coming months.

What do you think? Should school officials exercise more discretion in handling such cases, especially when the "offender" is so young? Or is a rule a rule, and it's too dicey to assess the circumstances on a case-by-case basis?

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    K-12 education