Yesterday he faced 45 days in reform school. This morning, Zachary Christie is on his way to school for the first time since he made the mistake of taking his favorite camping utensil to school and ran into his Delaware school system's zero-tolerance policy.
On Tuesday night the school board made a hasty change to its code of conduct. The seven-member board voted unanimously to reduce the punishment for kindergartners and first-graders who bring weapons to school or commit other violent offenses to a suspension ranging from three to five days.
"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, said after the board meeting Tuesday night. "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."
Early Wednesday morning Christie sent a text message to TODAY producers, saying that Zachary was headed off to school.
Christie thanked the school board for acting quickly but said it was only the first step toward a necessary overhaul of the school system's code of conduct. A spokeswoman for the school district said more changes were possible in the coming months.
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.
Jennifer Jankowski, 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?" Jankowski said. "There's more to the school's side than just us being mean and not taking this child's interests into account."
‘Can I have that?’
A Swiss Army-type combination of fork, spoon, bottle opener and knife, the tool has been Zachary’s favorite ever since he got it to take on Cub Scout camping expeditions. “He eats dinner with it, breakfast and everything else, so it never occurred to him that this would have been something wrong to do,” the 6-year-old’s mother told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday morning from Newark, Del.
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Zachary, an A student who sometimes wears a shirt and tie to school just because he likes to, told Vieira he put the tool in his pocket on Sept. 29 for a very simple reason: “To eat lunch with. I had absolutely no idea this was going to happen. I wasn’t thinking about this. I was thinking about having lunch with it.”
But when the tool fell out of his pocket on the bus and he walked off the vehicle with it in his hand, a teacher intercepted him. “She said, ‘Can I have that?’ ” Zachary recalled.
What Zachary didn’t realize was that he had fallen afoul of the Christina School District’s zero-tolerance policy toward weapons in school, one of many such policies implemented in the wake of such incidents as the Columbine High School massacre. The policy did not allow teachers or administrators to take into account intentions or the character of the student; if a student has a knife, suspension and subsequent assignment to the district’s “alternative placement school” — aka reform school — is mandatory.
Christina, which, according to its Web site, is the largest school district in Delaware with some 17,000 students, made its policy zero-tolerance because of concerns over racial discrimination. Studies have shown in other districts that when school officials are given discretion over such cases, African-American students are disciplined at a disproportionately high rate.
While some experts favor such zero-tolerance policies, others question their efficacy, saying there is no indication that they cut down on violent incidents in schools. One of them, national school safety consultant Kenneth Trump, told NBC News, “The school administrators have to be able to administer consequences and still have some discretion to fit the totality of the circumstances.”
“The policy, of course, needs some additional flexibility,” school board member Mackenzie agreed Tuesday.
Zachary had no idea that it was wrong to take his favorite camping tool to class. When the teacher asked for it when he got off the bus, he handed it over, unaware that he was already in serious trouble. He went to class while his principal called his mother.
“She said that I needed to come to the school immediately; that Zachary had brought a dangerous weapon into school, and I needed to come and pick him up. He would be suspended for five days pending a disciplinary action committee hearing. She said that he had a knife,” Christie told Vieira. Video: First-grader suspended over camping utensil
When his mother arrived at the John R. Downes Elementary School with her fiance, Lee Irving, Zachary was called from his first-grade classroom to join them.
“When they called my name up, I was like, ‘Uh-oh,’ ” he said.
Home school, not reform school
Zachary was suspended immediately for five school days. At the end of the suspension, he and his mother appeared before the district’s disciplinary action committee, where his principal and others spoke up for his good character. It didn’t matter. The committee’s hands were tied. The rules said he had brought a knife to school and would have to spend 45 days in the reform school.
Christie decided she would not send her son to that school. Instead, she has been home schooling Zachary while waiting for an opportunity to address the district’s board of education, which was to meet Tuesday night.
“I understand why they have it, but I don’t agree with the implementation of it,” Christie said Tuesday morning of the zero-tolerance policy. “I think they need to look at the age, maturity, intent, situation; bring in the teachers who know the child or the principal, and allow them to make the first call in these situations,” she said. “Looking at other schools’ codes of conduct in the Delaware Valley, their first step would have been a suspension.”
Christie assured Vieira that her son is well aware of the necessity of not taking anything new to school without first asking and is not a threat to anyone. She said she hoped the school board would agree with her - and Tuesday night, they apparently did.
Vieira asked Zachary Tuesday morning if he’s nervous about the prospect of eventually returning to his school.
“I’m not very nervous,” Zachary said. “I like being home-schooled. It’s happy in some ways; it’s sad in some ways. Sometimes I’m strict, and sometimes I can get into my serious mode. I can get into my happy mode. It’s just kind of fun being home-schooled, but I’m not scared to go back.”
And what has he learned from everything that’s happened to him?
“To always ask before taking something new into school,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.
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