NEWARK, Delaware -- 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 wanted him to go after he made the mistake of taking his favorite camping utensil to school.
However, on Tuesday night the school board made a hasty change to its code of conduct. The seven-member board voted unanimously to reduce the punishment for kindergartners and first-graders who bring weapons to school or commit other violent offenses to a suspension ranging from three to five days. Now, he could return to school today.
"I want to get him back as soon as possible. I want to put this behind him as soon as possible," said Debbie Christie, Zachary's mother. "But I also want him to know that he has a voice, and when things are not right, he can stand up and speak out against them."
Christie thanked the school board for acting quickly but said it was only the first step toward a necessary overhaul of the school system's code of conduct. A spokeswoman for the school district said more changes were possible in the coming months.
School board member John Mackenzie said he was surprised school officials did not use common sense and disregard the policy in Zachary's case. The need for common sense to prevail over the letter of the law was a recurring theme among the boy's supporters and school safety experts.
"When that common sense is missing, it sends a message of inconsistency to students, which actually creates a less safe environment," said Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm. "People have to understand that assessing on a case-by-case basis doesn't automatically equate to being soft or unsafe."
Not everyone believed the school district was out of line.
Jennifer Jankowski, who runs the special education programs at Jennie Smith Elementary in Newark, said schools need to be vigilant about protecting students. If Zachary or another student had been hurt by the knife, she said, the district would have taken the blame.
"If we can't punish him, then what about kids that did bring (a weapon) for bad things?" Jankowski said. "There's more to the school's side than just us being mean and not taking this child's interests into account."
The 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,” according to the 6-year-old’s mother.
Zachary, an A student who sometimes wears a shirt and tie to school because he likes to, and put the tool in his pocket on Sept. 29th 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 did 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 reform school — is mandatory.