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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Zero Tolerance Or Zero Decision?

Today (October 13, 2009) this story was reported by Fox News. "A 17-year-old Eagle Scout in upstate New York received a 20-day suspension for keeping a 2-inch pocketknife locked in a survival kit in his car. But, the teen's family wants their son reinstated so he can live out his dream of attending West Point - a dream now in peril because of the mar on his record."

And, of course, most readers are now thinking of the Scout's motto: "Be prepared." No doubt, as I read Matthew Whalen's story, I judged him most prepared for his mission in life. An exemplary student, a decorated scout, and an extremely focused young man, Matthew has pursued a dream since his first days of elementary school. Now, unfortunately, that dream is in danger of being extinguished, not because of his bad conduct but because of an interpretation of the zero-tolerance policy.

Circumstance is defined by Merriam-Webster as "a condition, fact, or event accompanying, conditioning, or determining another: an essential or inevitable concomitant (occurs concurrently with another)." A mitigating circumstance, by law, is "a factual matter argued in defense that may lessen a defendant's liability or culpability, resulting in lesser damages or a shorter sentence."

From my viewpoint, Matthew Whalen appears to be one of the most unlucky victims of circumstance ever. Matthew's situation does include circumstances that are legally mitigating, and, I think, that are justifiably excusable. The matter itself is most coincidental, yet his school has made it a mockery of the fruits of educational success. It has become deadly serious to Matthew's future

Lansingburgh Senior High School student Matthew Whalen said he was suspended for 20 days under the school district's Codes of Conduct for possessing a knife. Mark O'Brien of WTEN News in Albany, New York (October 8 2009) reported the pocket knife was a gift from his grandfather, Robert Whalen, the Hoosick Falls Police Chief.  Matthew says he kept the knife in a side compartment of his car and never tried showing it off or threatening anyone with it. 

According to (October 10, 2009),the student said he kept the knife in his car for emergency situations. "My car is designed in a way that if I ever broke down, I'd be OK," Whalen said, spoken like a true scout.

"I have a sleeping bag. I have bottled water.I have an MRE. I believe it's better to be prepared and not need it than need it and not have it," he said. (Mark O'Brien, WTEN News)

Matthew thinks a student might have told officials of the knife in his car as a prank that later went awry. According to Matthew, he has no real idea why this was done or by whom it was done. "If they (school officials) had told me, 'Take this out of your car,' I would have said all right, and it never would have been an issue," Matthew says.  "I was upset with it, but I can understand that. They have the zero-tolerance rule." (Mark O'Brien, WTEN News)

This event is evidently a very, very rare mark on Whalen's good record. He has already completed Army basic training as part of a goal of attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point -- a goal he has had since grade school. Not only is Matthew an honor roll student taking Advanced Placement classes, but also he was recognized by the Boy Scouts and the city of Troy for saving a woman's life last summer. And, of course, he has never been in any kind of trouble with the law.

Matthew said the school's assistant principal, Frank Macri, approached him on September 21, and asked if he had a weapon on him. Whalen told them he did not; then, he says, the officials asked if he had a knife in his car. Matthew admitted to having the knife in his car and willingly turned it over to the school officials. 

But things didn't end there, Whalen said."They brought a cop in, who told them 'he's not breaking any laws, so I can't charge him with anything.'" (Maxim Lott, Fox News, October 13 2009) The school gave Matthew a five day suspension, the maximum a principal can give without a superintendent's hearing. 

Reporter Mark O'Brien said, "The Lansingburgh Central School District has a zero-tolerance policy on weapons.  According to the district's Codes of Conduct, students are not allowed to have 'a weapon of any kind' on school grounds.  Even though a pocket knife is not considered a weapon under New York State penal code, the district also prohibits students from possessing anything 'that reasonably can be considered a weapon.'"

Despite a letter from Matthew's Scout Master explaining how a pocket knife is a common tool for scouts to have, the school reacted sternly. After an initial five day suspension that included the so-called "superintendent's hearing" (not attended by the Lansingburgh superintendent, by the way) to determine the extent of punishment, the district suspended Matthew for another 15 days. 

Matthew stated, "They basically asked me, 'Did you have the knife in your car?' And I said 'Yes, I did.' The meeting was recorded and they told me they were going to play the tape to the superintendent." (Maxim Lott, Fox News, October 13 2009) The principal even admitted that Whalen had no intent to use the knife, that he had no accessibility to the knife."

Matthew's parents say they received no explanation as to why the punishment was extended, and they claim there was no opportunity to ask.

In a statement to WTEN NEWS10, Superintendent George J. Goodwin said, "We do not comment on discipline related to an individual student.  Our policies are clear that weapons are not permitted on school premises and subject to disciplinary consequences." 

 Legal expert Thomas Carr, of Tully Rinckey PLLC, said the Whalens might have grounds to pursue legal action against the district if Matthew felt he had no choice but to allow school officials to search his car.

At this point, the Whalens are not sure when or if they will sue the district. Instead, they want the district to reinstate Matthew immediately and remove this from his official student record. "He needs to be doing the application for his admission to West Point right now," Bryan Whalen says."They're delaying that, and that could be very costly for him."
Matthew wants to follow in the military footsteps of his father and grandfather. His grandfather, Robert Whalen, received two Purple Hearts for his service in the Vietnam War. Bryan Whalen served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and at Ground Zero, as his unit was on the scene by the evening of September 11, 2001.  He's also received the Soldier's Medal from the U.S. Army, and he pulled survivors from a burning helicopter that had crashed at the Stratton Air National Guard Base during an air show crash in 1991. 

"I've received tremendous communal support. Almost everyone I've talked to has said they're behind me 100 percent, that it's ridiculous that [the school has] done this me...I don't know what I could do, because technically ... I did break the rules, and I'll accept that punishment," he said. "Perhaps I should have been more aware of the rules. However, I'm more upset about the additional 15 days.... That was entirely optional, and they decided to go through with that." (Maxim Lott, Fox News, October 13 2009) 

All Matthew Whalen wants is to return to class. "The rest of my life could be affected by this," he says. And, I fear, he is right.

What can you do? Blogger Steve McGough suggested something. How about making a phone call to Principal Angelina Bergin and politely ask her and the superintendent to let Matt go back to school. Her number is (518) 233-6806.

My Postscript

To me, the key words in the school's policy are weapons and subject to.

No doubt, Matthew had a knife in his car parked on school grounds. A knife can be defined as "a cutting instrument consisting of a sharp blade attached to a handle." To Matthew Whalen, that is exactly what it was: an instrument for survival, not a weapon used to inflict injury or a weapon threatened to be used with harmful intent. Could not a tire tool in the trunk or a baseball bat in the backseat be used as weapons of equally deadly force? 

Subject to is a phrase used in a document that generally prevents it from being an evidence of acceptance and, thus, of a concluded-transaction. It is synonymous with conditional, contingent, and dependent. Disciplinary consequences in Matthew's case were not required within the Lansingburgh policy. Whalen was subject to punishment, not deserving of punishment. 

We need to reward great students for scholarship, high ideals, achievement, and honesty. In the case of Matthew Whalen, school officials chose to stand behind hollow words instead of supporting their most-prized commodity.

Far-fetched, but I wonder what may have happened if an emergency had occurred on the school lot and the unfortunate victim had needed an emergency cricothyroidotomy (tracheotomy). Would soldier/scout Whalen have saved yet another life thanks to his advanced training and automobile emergency kit? Would the penalty have been applied?

“Dreams are the touchstones of our character.” - Henry David Thoreau

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