Yes, 'zero tolerance' means no penknife Weapon: An Anne Arundel high school suspends a senior for carrying a 2-inch blade.

February 07, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

It was a birthday gift from his mother, a little penknife, something for a 16-year-old getting his driver's license to carry on his key ring in case of a crisis.

Instead, it caused one.

"I didn't consider it a weapon," says John Destry, 18, who went from the honor roll at Southern Senior High School to being suspended from the Anne Arundel County school for the rest of the school year.

Under school board policy, a penknife is no versatile tool. It is a weapon. Possession on school grounds is punishable by extended suspension or expulsion.

Destry's story has become a rallying point at the Harwood school. His classmates claim that the school system's "cookie-cutter" discipline policy is half-baked because it ignores intent, student background and more.

In the rural community where teen-agers commonly carry pocket knives, many have stopped as a result of Destry's punishment.

"My brother had scissors on his key chain. Ever since this, my mother made him take it off," said Mike Price, 18, a friend of Destry's.

At home yesterday, Destry said he has never threatened anyone with the dull 2-inch blade. He has used it a few times to scrape ice from the lock on his car and to open boxes at the custard store at Annapolis Mall where he works after school to pay off his 1989 Integra.

His mother's gift began causing him trouble Jan. 17 when he left the key ring on his locker. A few days later, a PA announcement that a set of keys had been found brought Destry into the school office.

"If I thought that it was a weapon, I would never have claimed my keys. I'm not that stupid," he said.

Within a few days, he found himself in a meeting with school officials and his mother, fighting not to be kicked out of school.

The best they could do for him, the principal said, was give him a long-term suspension instead of straight-out expulsion.

He was allowed to take the semester exams Jan. 22 through Jan. 24, but that was it.

Destry's case is reminiscent of one in Baltimore County, where last March Chesapeake High School honor student Jodie Ulrich was expelled for bringing pepper spray on a key ring to school. A county judge reinstated her.

Since then, Destry has gone from worrying about advanced-placement physics exams to worrying if he will be removed from the running for a full ROTC college scholarship. Or if his chances of acceptance at the Merchant Marine Academy are ruined.

Before this, the worst school trouble he has ever been in was getting caught cutting a class.

"Kids like J. C. -- you want them in school," said his friend Price.

His classmates staged a vintage-1968 walkout at the school Tuesday, agreeing to return to classes only if they were allowed to talk to the school board Wednesday about what they consider an unreasonable discipline policy.

"I understand that nine times out of 10 this policy is going to work, but there's that one," Lisa Silor, president of the Student Government Association at the school, told the board. "You are going to take their entire future away."

The Anne Arundel school board adopted the policy in 1995 after more than three years of study and amid overwhelming parental support. It is explained in a student code of conduct adopted last year.

"The zero-tolerance policy that [was] mentioned is not one that we assumed lightly," said school board member Michael Pace. The policy demands automatic punishment.

"We had to draw a real bright line. Sometimes it might appear unfair," Pace said.

School system policies

But the growing popularity of school system policies that give principals scant leeway troubles some educators who fear it sends the wrong message.

"It shows the craziness of this kind of policy. The zero tolerance -- it is a great political stance to take, but these are real kids and these situations are not so easily packaged," said Peter Leone, education professor at the University of Maryland College Park and director of the Center for the Study of Troubling Behavior.

It unrealistically holds children to standards that adults are not held to, he said.

For example, Destry, like all Anne Arundel students, signed a statement at the start of the school year that he understood the conduct policies. Yesterday, Destry said he did not recall the specifics of the policy and was not sure if he had read all of it.

"Sure, the kid should have read it. How many of us have read in detail some of the paperwork we are given? Insurance policies? Auto loans?" Leone said.

"A knife is a knife is a knife," said Huntley Cross, special assistant for discipline and safety. "You can't have progressive discipline and mandatory sanctions for the same incident."

Neither Prince nor Board of Education administrators would discuss the details of Destry's case. But privately, some administrators say the youth was given a break because he was not expelled.

Extended suspension

The difference between extended suspension and expulsion is slight. As a suspended student, Destry is considered affiliated with the school system and can take four courses this semester at Anne Arundel Community College to fulfill his high school diploma requirements.

He won't be running indoor track this spring, however, and he doesn't know if he'll be allowed to dance at his senior prom or walk across a stage in a cap and gown at graduation.

After his math class at the community college yesterday, Destry said he will appeal the suspension to the school board, which could take the rest of the semester. He wants his record cleared.

"If you don't stand up for what you believe in life, you are nothing," he said.

"I disagree with the whole zero-tolerance thing. There is going to be another kid, and he is going to get into a similar situation -- maybe next year, maybe this year. And it has to be changed."

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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