Updated Monday at 6:40 p.m.; Gwinnett has reduced the student’s suspension to two days. See story in the AJC.
Updated Saturday at 5:52 p.m.
One of the toughest issues for schools and parents is discipline – the nature of the infraction, what the punishment is, how it is administered and to whom.
I received this letter from the family of a Gwinnett middle school student who found a penknife in a yard sale bag bought by an aunt, who apparently never looked in the bag before giving it to her 13-year-old nephew. The boy immediately told his teacher but got in trouble anyway. (It happens; a friend of mine bought a brand new piggybank in a birthday bag at a church rummage sale and later discovered a crisp $50 in it. Some grandchild never bothered to see what grandmom had included in the bank, I bet.)
I asked Gwinnett schools for a comment and received this Friday from Jorge Quintana, director of media relations for Gwinnett:
Gwinnett County Public Schools does not have a zero-tolerance policy. We look at situations individually and take appropriate disciplinary action. While we are not at liberty to confirm or discuss the discipline this young man faces, we know our administrators followed procedures as stated in the Student Conduct Code.
The rules call for more severe action against those students who do not self-report weapons they have in their possession. It’s important to understand that these rules are in place, in part, to prevent future incidents and rule violations. Without these rules in place, others could easily claim they were not aware of what they had in their possession.
I was a bit puzzled by the statement — it seemed to suggest the boy did not self report the knife — but just got a clarification from Quintana Saturday: “This student did self-report. I was trying to explain that the consequences are more severe when others report it.”
I don’t know – a four-day suspension seems to be a pretty severe consequence to me.
Marc Ragin, the author of the letter to the Gwinnett system, is the middle student’s brother-in-law, a doctoral student in Wisconsin married to the boy’s older sister.
“I hope that if more than just our family gets involved, the administration will redact Jack’s ridiculous punishment,” Ragin told me in an e-mail.
Here is Ragin’s letter to Gwinnett:
My brother Jack had a disciplinary incident at school this morning that I find particularly disturbing. I would like you to please reevaluate the circumstances and reconsider the punishment given to him.
For Christmas this year, Jack’s aunt gave him a bag she found at a garage sale. He brought the bag to school today. While showing the bag to a friend this morning during Chess Club, he noticed that there was a small pocketknife in the bag. Neither Jack nor anyone else was aware of this item. As soon as Jack saw the pocketknife, he immediately turned it in to his teacher. His teacher brought him to the principal’s office, where he was disciplined with four days of in-school suspension.
I understand that Lanier Middle and all the other Gwinnett County public schools have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to weapons, and that was the reason Jack was disciplined in such a manner. I have the utmost respect for such a rule, as it ensures the complete safety of all students and safety is (and should be) the number-one priority of the school system. However, I believe that Jack acted in the safest and most upstanding way possible given the situation and is being unjustly disciplined.
Jack was not aware of the pocketknife when he took the bag to school. Upon finding it on school grounds, what should he have done? What would you have wanted your own children to do? The safest and most rule-abiding thing to do was give it to a responsible adult, which Jack did. Now he is being punished – taken away from the classroom for four days – for doing the right thing.
One of the strategic goals of GCPS is to “ensure a safe, secure, and orderly environment for all.” Jack was doing exactly that, given unfortunate and accidental circumstances. At no point was any person’s safety in danger. The Mission of GCPS is “to pursue excellence in academic knowledge, skills, and behavior for each student.” Jack’s behavior was exemplary, and you are denying him four days of classroom education for such behavior.
The school’s action today sends the wrong message to Jack and other students. Jack did the right thing and he was punished for it. If a similar incident happened in the future, should he act differently? Should he hide the pocketknife, or throw it in the trash for someone else to find? Those appear to be the only ways he could go unpunished. Jack trusted his teacher and his principal, who promptly and severely punished him for doing the right thing. Does he have any reason to trust them in the future? I wouldn’t if I were him.
I am proud of Jack for doing what he did. He was given an ethical choice and made the best and safest decision possible. I am disappointed in the administration for their lack of judgment and perspective in such a situation. While the zero-tolerance policy has noble intentions, it cannot be followed blindly and there are certainly situations where judgment is necessary. Please reconsider Jack’s suspension and allow him to return to the classroom.
Regards, Marc Ragin
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog