Monday, March 26, 2007

Boy turns in knife, may still be expelled

Indianapolis Star, April 3, 2006

An Indiana couple are stunned that a principal suspended their son and recommended his expulsion for possession of a pocketknife even though he turned the knife in to the office as soon as he arrived at school. After turning in the knife, the eighth-grader was suspended from Stonybrook Middle School for 10 days and may be expelled. Elizabeth Voge-Wehrheim and Frank Wehrheim, the boy's mother and stepfather, have hired attorney Lawrence T. Newman to represent them.

"This young man made the most responsible choice under any policy possible," Newman said of the boy, Elliot Voge. "They are treating him as the most irresponsible student under the circumstances." Elliot, 14, said he was walking to the school entrance in the brisk weather March 3 and had placed his hands in his coat pocket when he felt the Swiss Army pocketknife in the pocket. "I went straight to the office right inside (the front door)," he said. He said he handed the knife to the school's treasurer,and told her he had brought it to school by mistake. As a result of Elliot's actions, the school's principal, Jimmy Meadows, suspended Elliot for the maximum 10 school days as allowed by law and recommended Elliot be expelled.

The family's attorney said school officials' actions send students the wrong message. "Their message is to be dishonest, take more chances," Newman said. Elliot "didn't want to keep it (the knife) on his person," Newman said. "The school is saying, 'Don't make this responsible choice.' "

I don't think anyone can argue that students should be able to take weapons to school, any more than you or I can take weapons to the office, into a theatre, or on an airplane. But the people in charge here should be able to discern between a tool, brought in error, and surrendered immediately and voluntarily, and a loaded firearm brought intentionally and concealed.

The family attorney has the right idea here. Under the circumstances, what choice did the kid have? Other sources say that Elliot was using the knife over the weekend to whittle some wood, which is how it ended up in his pocket in the first place, and that he only noticed its presence after his parent had dropped him off outside the school and classes were to begin soon. Elliot had been a model student, recommended for AP courses the following year with no disciplinary record. His friends urged him to hide it but no, he made the honest and responsible choice. Would that more adults followed his example.

Zero tolerance means zero thought. It's also another violation of the constitutional rights guaranteed to all citizens; the Fifth Amendment right to due process of law. Automatic expulsion of students for an infraction, no matter what the circumstances or the severity, denies the students their right to defend themselves against the accusation.

Follow-up: Due to widespread outrage and media attention, the following week the principal reversed his decision and opted not to punish the student. This was a highly publicised case that resulted in a victory for the teen in question, but is still symptomatic of the larger problems. How many of these kinds of cases go by without the media frenzy? We as a society need to address the root cause of this knee-jerk reaction, and not just focus on the extremes.

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