Lesson: Check all bags bought at yard sales for weapons. But Gwinnett student’s punishment seems harsh.

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

94 comments Add your comment

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

January 7th, 2012
2:24 pm

Hmmmm. Seems to me there is a distinct difference between a student who “self reports” they found a weapon in their possession, and a student who is caught with a weapon and then claims they did not know they had one with them. The student who deliberately brought a weapon to school is not likely to “self report” they have it, are they?

I can see the difference. Apparently, the Powers That Be cannot.

Lee

January 7th, 2012
2:38 pm

Once again, the idiocy of public school educrats is on display for all to see.

Way back when, just about every boy I went to school with carried a pocketknife – all the way from first grade through high school. In all those years, we never had a case of a stabbing or knifing of another student. The same penknife today causes fits of hysteria among teachers and administrators. But yet, Google “stabbed with pencil” and see how many hits you get.

They should ban those dangerous writing instruments from school, roflmao.

If they [school officials] “look at every case individually”, then obviously, if the facts were presented correctly, Gwinnett has a complete moron administering discipline.

reality 2

January 7th, 2012
2:48 pm

So, who is more idiotic, the principal who punishes students who self-report weapons accidentally brought to school, or a teacher who will include math word problems about slaves and beatings? Is this the true reflection of the school system that won a major award last year? I suppose there could always be a couple of bad apples.

catlady

January 7th, 2012
2:55 pm

I had something similar happen at my school several years ago. A fifth grader who had never been in trouble brought something to school that had a knife in it. He self-reported, and was given 3 days of out of school suspension. I really hated that; I went to bat for him but to no avail.

It seems we have a disparity in the reporting of what happened. I wonder why?

IF the boy had never been in trouble for fighting, etc, and IF he self-reported, he should have been given a lesser sentence, I think. But if BOTH those things were not true, 3 days ISS does not seem harsh. We have too many kids who claim “an accident” for things which are quite obviously NOT accidents. (For example, one repeatedly previously violent student-whose father had also threatened the principal previously, leading her to leave the building and hide-”accidently” stabbed another student FIVE TIMES with a fork!)

catlady

January 7th, 2012
2:57 pm

“discovered during Chess Club”–yep, those kids are usually SOOOO dangerous! Win at all costs!

d

January 7th, 2012
3:20 pm

Knowing Gwinnett as I do, I’m surprised there wasn’t a referral to alternative school. I’ve seen them do it for lesser offenses.

Fred

January 7th, 2012
3:22 pm

@Lee: you are killing me dude. It’s a different time now. Yeah when I went to school we didn’t carry “pen knives” we all had sheath knives on our belts. At least a folding buck knife. Go out to the parking lot and you would find that most of the trucks had at least TWO weapons in them, a shotgun and a rifle in the back window rack.

And no one ever got stabbed or shot.

Two Cents

January 7th, 2012
3:45 pm

Me thinks the school is going overboard on this. Way overboard. This kid did something on his own once he realized the problem; most kids would do nothing and waited to see if anyone else spoke up. This kid was more of an adult than the adults were. How sad.

Ole Guy

January 7th, 2012
3:46 pm

OK, so the kid’s “punishment” seems harsh (as I recall, in-house suspension was/is really no big deal IF…repeat IF…the kid is semi-serious about his school work. He gets his assignments from teacher; has more than ample time to get the work done, etc, etc). Harsh, one upon a time, was getting your six ripped; being sent right back to class…no horse crap, no pissing around…but that’s another Ole Guy story.

Let’s try to look at this thing from a different (and possibly a constructive) perspective…WHO’S responsible for one’s self? Sure, Momma and Daddy ultimately hold that one, however (as I have repeatedly tried to elaborater), at SOME point in their young lives, these kids need to start understanding the concept of accountability…two socks, check…two shoes, check…head screwed on straight, check. I honestly see no big issue with teaching Little Johnny to become somewhat aware of his surroundings. If that means checking his bag (particularly in light of the fact that in-school security has become a serious matter which everyone…that’s EVERYONE…needs to be at least vaguely familiar with), your pockets, following that weekend fishing trip, etc, etc…SO BE IT.

This “punishment” is, in all reality, a “pop on the six with a rolled-up towel”, an activity which was all-too familiar among mid-school/high school jocks following a practice session; a locker room “custom” which probably disappeared with the on-set of the gods of pc.

Believe it or not, Ole Guy has had his share of “zingers”, both professional and personal. One can either go through life, following these zingers, despondent over the “harshness” of it all, OR employ every opportunity to view these zingers…deserved or not…as learning opportunities…regardless of the fairness/unfairness arguements, there will ALWAYS be a potential learning opportunity. Given my more-than ample familiarization with “zingerland” throughout my checkered careers, I have still managed to emerge (sometimes with the “scars” of life) all the better for it.

Maybe, just maybe, all this fuss is simply a reflection of YOUR fears…fears that (strike forehead with open palm) life, simply, IS NOT ALWAYS GOOD, NOR IS LIFE ALWAYS FAIR…something which we seem to want to sheild the wee little ones from.

GET OVER IT! Two days after the kid joins his class, he will…

mom3boys

January 7th, 2012
3:49 pm

He’s 13? Is he in 8th grade? The most disturbing part of this is the poor kid is sitting in ISS doing busy work, while missing out on valuable classroom instruction prior to the state writing test on January 18.

that's goofy

January 7th, 2012
4:25 pm

we have one side of the story. But, that is all that is required to bash the school system. Not saying they are right… but can’t say they are wrong because I don’t have all the facts.

What if some of the letter writer’s “facts” are wrong?

ISS = no big deal. Teachers provide daily work.

Lee

January 7th, 2012
4:42 pm

@Fred, yes, it is a “different” time now, but I don’t think it is a “better” time.
————————————-

For those of you who think ISS is no big deal, I say if the facts are as presented in the letter, this child should have received NO punishment.

Lesson learned – you just can’t trust those in authority to do the right thing.

Mrs.B

January 7th, 2012
4:54 pm

If I were a kid in this situation, I’d keep my mouth shut and act surprised if the knife were found by someone else. It’s obvious that doing the right thing carries the same punishment as doing the wrong thing.

Pink

January 7th, 2012
5:34 pm

These are the kind of people who would tell Nazis where Jews are because, well it is the rule and so it must be the right thing. Right? Well, Jack, I guess next time you find a knife in your bag you’ll sell it to Julio down by the school yard. Won’t you?

Fred

January 7th, 2012
5:50 pm

CDJ

January 7th, 2012
6:48 pm

Assuming that one agrees with the facts presented in this particular school discipline incident, this looks to be a case in which personnel simply followed the dictates of a handbook rather than asking and addressing the right set of questions — which would likely have resulted in a different outcome. If we are to have heightened expectations of students, we should also heighten our expectations of adults.

@ Ole Guy

You simplifying this situation down to the “be more responsible and accountable” argument resembles that of the academic-lifer economists who simplify life down to theory-based empirical models — and are left scratching their heads when reality highlights the flaws of those nobel worthy models. The reality is that life requires a lot of context. Without proper context, you are simply left guessing throughout life.

Furthermore, your “take life as it’s presented” approach is not conducive to human or societal growth. Once upon a time man thought that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. These flawed ideas were ultimately corrected as a result of humans pushing against conventional wisdom and the status quo of their times. Humans have benefited greatly from this approach.

carlosgvv

January 7th, 2012
7:12 pm

When this student was asked if he would be honest with the teachers if he had to do it over, he said he would. I wish he had said “this incident has taught me never ever to trust any teacher again”.

William Casey

January 7th, 2012
7:13 pm

@CDJ: your “just following the handbook” comment is spot-on.” In all probability, that’s what happened. Schools have become “mindless” and it’s for a reason: no administrator ever got in trouble for EXACTLY following the letter of the law.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
7:24 pm

It’s irresponsible blogs like this that stir emotions that lead to what happened at that school. The freak-out fall-out over the killings in Columbine – yes, your freak-out too Maureen – results in these very situations.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
7:29 pm

So, the next time you get pulled over you should be able to tell the officer that a friend had borrowed the car earlier and that is not your bag of weed under the seat, that you had no idea it was there.

And I’m sure the officer will just walk away! LOL!

Hey, what if another middle-schooler had got into that bag, taken the knife and buried it into someone’s back?

Real shame you all want to teach this young man that ignorance is an excuse.

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

January 7th, 2012
7:38 pm

Jenny,

Your analogy does not work, unless the person borrowing the car FOUND the bag of weed and TURNED IT INTO THE POLICE.

Sam

January 7th, 2012
7:41 pm

Mindless bureaucreat principal who lacks the common sense to make a good decison. The responsible official should be fired for being stupid and take the slavery asking math teacher with him.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
7:41 pm

Look up OWNERSHIP :)

CDJ

January 7th, 2012
7:42 pm

@ Jenny

Really! Pretty poor attempt to equate your concocted scenario (someone pulled over and contraband is subsequent discovered) to the facts presented in this case (kid proactively brings forth non-permitted device). Moreover, why even participate on such an irresponsible blog?!

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
7:43 pm

Seriously though, just another impossible win situation for the school, manifested by the emotion of an ignorant public.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
7:44 pm

CDJ – your irresponsibility makes me laugh :-)

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
7:50 pm

So, a 14-yr-old can bring a gun, show it off to his friends, with nothing to worry about. If anybody else sees it, he can just walk it up to the nearest teacher and say his aunt bought his bag at a yard sale and he didn’t know it was in there.

And we shouldn’t think he’s making it up because middle-schooler never lie? LOL!

You guys are bunch of suckers.

CDJ

January 7th, 2012
7:56 pm

@ Jenny

Laugh on, but please do aim to bring valuable insight to the public dialogue.

Atlanta Mom

January 7th, 2012
8:15 pm

Word does get around quickly in a school. You can bet no child self reports in that school for the next decade. What’s the benefit?
And I do think, I would advise my children to zip it up, try to make it through the day and come home to self report to me.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
8:19 pm

CDJ – both the school and the kid were right. Sometimes being right has a cost. And sometime adherence to this cost is simply the best option, even if someone gets screwed.

Like when the wife finally blows off the head of the alcoholic husband who has beaten her for years. She still does a little time.

Waving the cost of doing the right thing opens a pandora’s box whose contents cost infinitely more.

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
8:21 pm

More proof that the teachers and administrators in Georgia don’t have the common sense they were born with.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
8:24 pm

Atlanta Mom – don’t ya think it’s just a little pathetic that you, the MOTHER, wave all irresponsibility for what your kid brings to school?

And should you choose to preface this issue with your child – the only way he’ll know what to do when it happens – you will become responsible for the fall-out of his friends actions after your son shares your ‘irresponsible card’ with them.

geez…

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
8:25 pm

@Jenny,
So a child who has done nothing wrong should just accept the punishment of ISS because adherence to rules is more important than finding out the truth.

You must be an administrator.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
8:26 pm

‘More proof that the teachers and administrators in Georgia don’t have the common sense they were born with.’

No, more proof you never listened or did you homework and are now left not knowing your butt from a hole in the ground :)

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
8:28 pm

Kindergartners being suspended for kissing a girl on the play ground. Students being punished for doing the right thing.

More proof that common sense is not common in the good ole USA.

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
8:29 pm

Thanks Jenny for proving you are a troll.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
8:32 pm

Mahopinion – this rabbit hole of fantasy of which you speak doesn’t fly for people in positions of responsibility and accountability.

So, if someone had stolen that knife from the bag and killed a classmate – before the middle-school Boy Scout knew about it, you would just shrug it off even though there would not have been such a killing had the knife not been in the bag.

Maybe you could get Superman to fly around the earth backwards real fast and undo the whole thing! LOL!

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
8:35 pm

Oh, of course, brain overload equals somebody else trolling. More irresponsibility…geez…

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
8:36 pm

Yawn at Jennys typical bureaucratic over reaction. Perhaps we should ban the use of all paper in classrooms because someone might get a paper cut that becomes infected with flesh eating bacteria. Wouldn’t that be the prudent thing to do for someone in a position of responsibility and accountability?

honested

January 7th, 2012
8:42 pm

Someday, we will realize we have outgrown the notion of ‘zero tolerance’ policies and will return to trusting the judgement of the professionals entrusted to govern our schools.

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
8:50 pm

Mahopinion – Brilliant. A knife and a paper cut are the same thing.

You’re embarrassing yourself. Go sleep it off :)

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
8:56 pm

Perhaps we should ban chairs, too. After all, not only could a student fall off one and injure themselves, they could also pick it up and use it as a weapon against another student. And don’t even get me started on the potential dangers of pens and pencils!!!

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
9:01 pm

Oh! And scissors! How could I have forgotten about those weapons of mass detruction that can be found in every single classroom. Come on prudent responsible administrators. Get those dangerous things out of our classes before some rogue student goes nuts and steals one out of his neighbors desk and stabs another student!

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
9:02 pm

Mahopinion – Yes, chairs and pens and pencils are the same as a knife.

You’re embarrassing yourself. Go sleep it off :)

Tony

January 7th, 2012
9:10 pm

I’m speaking as a school principal with this response – a four day in-school suspension for this student in these circumstances is NOT appropriate and the school disciplinary response is an overreaction. It is unfortunate that I have colleagues in the profession who can not think for themselves.

Larry Major

January 7th, 2012
9:19 pm

The four days ISS mean the self-reporting was taken into consideration, since this is the minimum punishment for a Level II offense. Lacking the self-report, this is a Level III offense which involves a disciplinary hearing on long term suspension (state law requires a one year minimum) or other long term action. When Mr. Quintana mentioned the more severe actions, he was using Jack as an example of minimum action, since there is no lighter punishment for a weapons violation.

You may be right that this could dissuade others from self-reporting, but hopefully the effect will be heightened awareness and an increased effort to prevent others from making the same mistake.

If you think the punishment is harsh, consider this: had this kid been a few years older and someone else reported his possession of a weapon, he would be facing a one year minimum prison term.

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
9:21 pm

What ever happened to letting the punishment fit the crime?

Jenny

January 7th, 2012
9:39 pm

Larry Major wins.

Goodnight ladies and gents :)

CDJ

January 7th, 2012
9:54 pm

The scary thing in this case is the fact that adults have been trained and mandated to allow a handbook to think for them. From a “cover your butt” and risk mitigation standpoint, this abdication of critical thinking (a true metric of responsibility) is rational behavior — nevertheless scary.

Recognizing that institutions (e.g. the public school system in this case) will strive to sustain themselves at the expense of the individual when push comes to shove … to what degree do you allow/accept the humanity of the individual to erode in order to soothe the conscious of some, but at the expense of a many.

Mahopinion

January 7th, 2012
9:54 pm

Ah, but Larry, there in lies the crux of the problem. The punishment for self reporting doesn’t fit the crime. It’s a knee jerk reaction with absolutely no room for common sense.