A Blaine teenager has been suspended from school for 10 days and faces possible expulsion Monday after a box cutter was spotted in his car in the high school parking lot. Administrators invoked the school's zero-tolerance weapons policy, which allows little disciplinary leeway.
Blaine High School senior Tony Richard, 17, admits the box cutter was sitting in plain sight in the cup holder in his car in the parking lot Sept. 5. It was spotted by a security guard checking parking passes. But Richard contends that the cutter was for his after-school job on a Cub Foods clean-up crew, where his duties include cutting up cardboard boxes.
School officials didn't budge. They suspended Richard and recommended to the Anoka-Hennepin school board that he be expelled. The board will decide his fate Monday.
"I pretty much said, 'Are you kidding?'" said Richard, who said his disciplinary record is limited to a few tardies. "I didn't know how to react. I didn't want to get angry and stuff. I didn't want to make it any worse."
Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, says weapons policies present dilemmas for school districts but are necessary, particularly following bursts of school violence across the country.
"While schools have zero-tolerance policies, you must also allow judgment to come into play," Kyte said. "The board's gotta look at this and say, 'Hmmm, did this kid really create a horrible act?' The second thing they have to ask themselves is, by giving a less rigorous punishment, are they also opening the door to kids thinking they can get away with this stuff?"
School officials won't speak directly about Richard's case, citing data privacy laws, but district communications specialist Sarah Schwartz referred to the high school handbook, which clearly prohibits weapons of any kind on school grounds, including knives and toy guns and pepper spray. Box cutters are explicitly listed. The 10-day suspension and expulsion recommendation are what the policy book calls for. Schwartz added that students and parents sign a document each fall acknowledging they have read and understand the policies in the handbook.
"We try to apply these policies in a uniform way to all students. It isn't fair to them if we don't," Schwartz said. "We try to be consistent and take all incidents very seriously. We think our district parents expect that from us."
Michael Sullivan, chairman of the Anoka-Hennepin school board, said Monday's hearing won't be the first he's seen in the district. He wouldn't speak specifically about Richard's case, but he said the scenario is familiar. He recalled one student suspended for possessing a similar tool after working on the set of the school play. He didn't remember whether that student was expelled.
But a number of students have been expelled, he said, and allowed back later on probation. There's limited sympathy for the work argument, he said, when such tools can be easily left at work.
Zero-tolerance policies also have come into play in other districts.
In April, two high school students in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district were expelled for the remainder of the school year after they bought souvenir swords during a spring break choir trip to Britain.
The students, a sophomore and a senior, were caught when the weapons were being taped up to be shipped home.
In 2003, Shakopee High School senior Travis Kohlrusch was told he would be expelled after he was caught with two shotguns, unloaded and cased, in his pickup in a school parking lot. Kohlrusch, who had been goose hunting that morning, instead withdrew from Shakopee High School and attended an alternative high school.
The same year, 16-year-old Jake Trembath was threatened with expulsion from Maple Grove High School after school officials spotted a toy cap gun poking from the backseat of his car. The Osseo school board did not approve a recommendation for expulsion, and Trembath was allowed to return to school.
"We should try to assure parents that we protect their kids while they're in their schools. That's job one as a school district," Sullivan said. "The way you do that is to make sure weapons are not there and are not available."
But Richard's mother, Michelle Richard, maintains that her son should not have to pay for his forgetfulness by not being able to graduate with his senior class.
"My son is a student in a district where my kids have always gone, and the punishment isn't fitting the crime," she said. "He did not come with any intention to harm anyone. This is used as a utility for his job. I understand there are policies and procedures, but there are gray areas to all policies and procedures."
Kyte, who spent a dozen years as superintendent for the Northfield schools, said it wasn't unheard of for a student there to show up to school after a night of work at the local market with a cutter in his pocket. It was clear the student had no intentions to harm anyone.
"No matter what the policy was, the kid would have gotten from me a one-day suspension and a pretty good lecture about being forgetful," Kyte said. "Now, if that kid pulled that razor knife out and threatened another student in the lunchroom, he never would have seen the inside of my school again."
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921