By BEN NUCKOLS, Associated Press Writer
BEAR, Del. – A Delaware first-grader who was facing 45 days in an alternative school as punishment for taking his favorite camping utensil to school can return to class after the school board made a hasty change granting him a reprieve.
The seven-member Christina School Board voted unanimously Tuesday to reduce the punishment for kindergartners and first-graders who take weapons to school or commit violent offenses to a suspension ranging from three to five days.
Zachary Christie, 6, had faced 45 days in an alternative school for troublemakers after he took the utensil — a combination folding knife, fork and spoon — to school to eat lunch last month. Now, he could return Wednesday.
"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."
A spokeswoman for the school district said more changes to the school system's code of conduct were possible in the coming months.
The punishment given to Zachary was one of several in recent years that have prompted national debate on whether schools have gone too far with zero-tolerance policies.
It was not the first such case in the Christina School District, Delaware's largest with more than 17,000 students, which includes parts of the city of Wilmington and its suburbs. Last year, a fifth-grade girl was ordered expelled after she brought a birthday cake to school and a serrated knife to cut it with.
The expulsion was overturned, and it led to a state law that gave districts more flexibility on punishments. But that law applied only to conduct that triggers expulsions, not suspensions.
School board member John Mackenzie told The Associated Press before the meeting that 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.
Jill Kneisley, 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?" Kneisley said. "There's more to the school's side than just us being mean and not taking this child's interests into account."
Several people spoke on Zachary's behalf, including some who said other students had been unjustly punished.
Dodi Hebert said her 13-year-old son, Kyle, was tormented throughout last year by a group of bullies who ultimately planted a knife on him. Kyle was ordered into the alternative school, but Hebert refused to send him there and home-schools him instead.
"You can't kick kids out of school for the kinds of things that are happening," Connie Merlet told the board. "This is a horrible thing to happen to our district, to be on the national news because you guys weren't paying attention."
(This version CORRECTS that the statements made on the school's need to protect students were made by special education teacher Jill Kneisley, not Jennifer Jankowski.)