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TODAY   |  October 12, 2009

First-grader suspended over camping utensil

Oct. 13: 6-year-old Zachary Christie was suspended after he brought a camping utensil to school. TODAY’s Meredith Vieira talks to Zachary, his mother, Debbie, and her fiance, Lee Irving, about the incident.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> back at 7:43, and now to a 6-year-old first grader in delaware facing 45 days in reform school for bringing his favorite camping tool to school . we're going to talk with him and his family in just a moment, but first, nbc's rehema ellis has details.

>> i go to elementary school and i --

>> reporter: zachary christie was a typical first grader like other 6-year-olds until he brought this to school .

>> he eats dinner with it and, you know, breakfast and everything else, so it just, it never occurred to him that this would have been something wrong to do.

>> reporter: it is a utensil zachary got last year for family camping. it comes with a fork, a spoon and a knife. but when it fell out of his pocket at school , zachary found out he had violated a strict ban on weapons. according to the christina school district student code of conduct , action was necessary.

>> the idea was to avoid discriminating against any student and to treat all students the same.

>> reporter: zachary was suspended and now faces 45 days in the district's reform school . some school safety experts say the zero tolerance policy goes too far.

>> school administrators have to be able to administer consequences but still have some discretion that fits the totality of the circumstances.

>> reporter: the small town of newark, delaware , is now making national headlines.

>> this next story is an example of good intentions leading to some unwelcomed consequences.

>> reporter: thousands are logging on to helpzachary.com to show support.

>> nobody would have wished this situation to happen, but now that it has happened, we need to speak up so it doesn't happen to another little kid. he loves science, he --

>> reporter: tonight, zachary 's mom wants to present his case to the school board . debbie christie says reform school is not an option for her son as far as she's concerned and she's hopeful zachary will be allowed back in his first grade classroom soon. in the meantime, she'll be teaching her son at home. for "today," rehema ellis, nbc news, newark, delaware .

>> zachary christie is with us now along with his mother, debbie , and debbie 's fiance, lee irving. good morning to you all.

>> good morning.

>> good morning.

>> debbie , let me start with you. when you got that phone call from zachary 's superintendent -- or actually, his principal , on september 29th , what did she say to you?

>> she said that i needed to come to the school immediately, that zachary had brought a dangerous weapon in to school and i needed to come and pick him up. he would be suspended for five days, pending a disciplinary action committee hearing .

>> did she describe to you what he had on his possession?

>> she said that he had a knife.

>> and did you know -- this is actually a camping utensil, it's a spoon, a fork and a knife. did you know that's what it was?

>> no, at that point --

>> and bottle opener .

>> and bottle opener .

>> at that point, i didn't know.

>> so, you had no idea that he had taken --

>> at that point, i didn't know.

>> and you had no idea that he had taken that to school that day.

>> no, i didn't know.

>> zach, why did you take the camping utensil to school with you that day?

>> to eat lunch with.

>> to eat lunch with. had you taken it before?

>> i had -- no, i had absolutely no idea this was going to happen. i was just -- i wasn't thinking about this. i was thinking about having lunch with it.

>> so, when the teacher pulled you aside. when the teacher saw that you had that, did you know you were in trouble? what did the teacher say to you?

>> i didn't know. she said, "can i have that? i'm going to hand this to your teach teacher." and she handed it to the principal , and when they called my name up, i was like, uh-oh. and then when i got to the office, my mom and lee were there and i went in.

>> yeah. and debbie , you were told, as you said before, that there would be an immediate suspension of five days, and then what?

>> and then a disciplinary action committee for alternative placement. and that happened five days later.

>> five days later, and that's when you were told that he would have to go to a reform school for 45 days?

>> correct, the alternate placement school .

>> debbie , let me ask you about this zero tolerance policy the school has, with regards to anything that might be considered a weapon. and in this case, because there's a knife on that camping uutensil, that would qualify. do you think the policy is a sound one? do you understand why they have it?

>> i understand why they have it, yes, but i don't agree with the implementation of it. 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 on these decisions.

>> so, what do you think the proper course of action should have been in this case with zachary ?

>> well, looking at other schools' code of conducts in the delaware valley , their first step would have been a suspension.

>> so, at this point, zachary -- you're home-schooling zachary , correct? do you have any intention to allow him to go to this reform school if that is the final decision?

>> no. i wouldn't allow him to go to that, and yeah, i am home-schooling him.

>> i know that you have appealed to the superintendent and you're going to meet with the school board tonight. you'll have an opportunity to speak to them. what do you hope comes out of that meeting?

>> i hope that, of course, they expunge his record and allow him to go back to downs immediately. i think he has had an overexcessive education around this issue. so, i'm hoping that out of all of this, the policy changes and that no other child is affected negatively by what is supposed to keep them all safe.

>> zachary , what have you learned through all of this?

>> to always ask before taking something new into school .

>> to ask your mom whether it's okay?

>> anybody in the house, anybody that looks over me and stands up for me.

>> yeah, and are you excited? do you want to go back to school ? are you nervous about it?

>> i'm not very nervous. i like being home-schooled. it's kind of -- i mean, it's happy in some ways. it's sad in some ways. i'm -- sometimes i'm sometimes strict, i'm sometimes i can get into my serious mode, i can get into my happy mode. i can -- it's just kind of fun being home-schooled, but i'm not scared to go back.

>> okay. you shouldn't be. well, zachary , thank you so much. debbie and lee, thank you all for joining us this morning.

>> thank you.

>> thank you.

>> and good luck tonight, debbie .

>> thank you so much.

>>> still ahead, a 4-month-old baby originally denied health insurance for being too fat. but first, these messages.

>>> still ahead, we'll talk to miracle on the hudson pilot sully sullenberger.