Justice! 3rd Grader with Cool Knife No Longer a Criminal

Hi Readers — Here’s lovely news! Remember that third grader who was showing off his pocket knife after school and ended up EXPELLED? We ran the story on Feb. 17, asking for help and media coverage.

Got both — and JUSTICE! It started here, so thank you, readers (and 141 commenters)!! Let’s hear it for creating sanity in the world! Here’s a note from the mom who sent in the original story. — L.

Thank you thank you thank you for your incredible outpouring of support and encouragement!  
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It worked! Multiple blogs, facebook posts, online and news editorials, newsgroups threads, community group emails, a petition that garnered nearly100 supporters in just one day, two new websites urging balance to Zero Tolerance, and a middle school petition at SMS… way to mobilize!!
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The boy’s record has been cleared and his expulsion repealed.  He has been invited back to school and our superintendent will be calling the local police department to urge them to drop the charges.  However, the damage has been done and he’s terrified of Cumberland, so he will remain where he’s at for the time being.
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I think what is in order now is a very heartfelt apology from the administration, the district, and the police, and a complete overhaul of our state and district policy regarding Zero Tolerance, so this does not happen again. Many many thanks! — Julie Colwell
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In a follow-up note, I asked Julie how the story spread and got action. We can all learn some social media/social action lessons from what she wrote back:
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This was a success of social media, actually.  None of the large outlets picked it because the boy’s parents weren’t willing to talk until the criminal charges were dropped.  I didn’t want it to become old news, so I posted your blog and the letter to the editor in the Sunnyvale Sun (which is our tiny local paper — but everybody reads it) on my kids’ school newsgroups and Facebook pages.  And I started a petition on change.org which sends an automatic email to our state reps, state superintendent, district superintendent, principal and several other education officials every time someone signs it.  How annoying is that?
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From there, it spread to more local newsgroups and blogs and other social media.  Someone started a Facebook page on Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance.  I must have gotten over a hundred emails in support.
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But Free-Range Kids was first.  Many many thanks!  And also thanks to whomever on Free-Range Kids suggested the petition on change.com.  I’m going to keep pursuing that.  Hopefully we can make this sanity permanent!

Help Needed! Zero Tolerance Gets Third Grader & His Cool Knife Expelled

Hi Readers! Here we go again – officials overreacting as if this makes them smart and proactive (rather than…overreacting). L.
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Dear Free-Range Kids: My daughter’s third grade friend brought his pocket knife to school on accident.  It was just in his pants’ pocket from the weekend.  An hour after school was dismissed, he and his friends were still playing on school grounds and he showed his knife to them.
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One of them was a girl and because the blade was pointing her direction, she decided he was “brandishing it” and went to tell her mom, who told the office, who told the district, who told the cops, one of whom said if he saw him with a knife again, he could shoot him.  (That’s right — preserve and protect — bully the eight-year-old.)
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He’s being expelled.  I know you post stories like these, but I was wondering if you had any suggestions of where my friend could go for support.  She’s trying to find a lawyer and figure out what her options are.
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I’d like to take this to the media since it’s been pretty effective in getting other districts to relent on their Zero Tolerance policies.  Anyway, do you have any suggestions of where to start? [LENORE: Yes! Here!]
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The incident was at Cumberland Elementary School in Sunnyvale, CA.  The Sunnyvale School District (between San Jose and San Francisco) is in charge of punishment.  To his credit, our school principal tried to just have him suspended, but once the district got wind of it, under California’s Zero Tolerance policy, they are required to issue a mandatory recommendation of expulsion and contact law enforcement — enter the threatening policeman.
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The boy is terrified.  He’s never been a troublemaker. He has a brother in kindergarten who is baffled.  – A California Mom.
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Lenore here: The writer has set up an email account for any lawyers or press to contact her about the incident:  bringbackdominick@gmail.com

This is NOT the knife the boy showed his friends.

A Great Free-Range Moment! (If You Ignore the Blood)

Hi Readers — Enjoy! (And just don’t ask if I get MY kids, aged 13 and 15, to do all this stuff. Wish I did!) — L.

Dear Free-Range Kids: I just had a great `Free-Range’ moment!  I regularly get my kids (5 and 7) to do chores around the house, unloading/loading the dishwasher, laundry sorting/loading/folding, vacuuming, etc.  Today my son cut his finger while unloading the dishwasher at my mom’s house.  It was on one of those huge chef knives and it went pretty deep so I make the trip to the ER since I didn’t know where Urgent Care was.

With it being a knife injury, the staff ask a couple of questions to make sure it wasn’t a domestic situation.  My son (7) told them how he was unloading the dishwasher and the nurse and doctor looked at one another in surprise.  I thought, “Uh oh… will I have to explain my parenting philosophy again???”  The doc then turned to my son, “Do you always unload the dishwasher?  Your mom has raised you right.” — Commenter Jenn

A Whittle Help Needed

Hi Readers! Over at another blog I was just reading about a 4-year-old and his kitchen knife skills. They were good for his age, as evidenced by the video, but it’s not like he’s Julia Child. So I’m wondering: What age can we start teaching kids to use knives? And does anyone have any info about the “olden” days? Like — what age did kids used to start whittling? Going a little further back, at what age did kids start using stone tools? And if anyone knows what is going on in other countries, please tell: Do kids in other cultures use knives or spears or machetes very young?

I have a feeling kiddie knife-use is going the way of tree climbing and fort-making. So zooming back to our present day culture right here in the nervous first world, if you’ve got a simple tip for getting kids started (or getting PARENTS ready to get their kids started) do tell!  Thanks! — L.

Zero Tolerance for a Good Kid

Hi Readers: This one will make your blood boil even if it’s freezing outside. It’s about a North Carolina high school senior suspended for a paring knife found in her lunchbox, which, for the record, was actually her dad’s identical lunchbox that she brought to school by mistake. (Dad pares his apples at lunch, his daughter doesn’t.)

Sometimes I worry that by printing these weird Zero Tolerance stories — stories of kids suspended for the most innocent of “crimes” — I am giving as warped a picture of our culture as the nightly news does. (Albeit, with a different slant.) But then I think, the reason for publicizing these incidents is not to say they are epidemic, but to point out why they are happening at all: It is due to the inability of those in power to do any kind of sensible risk assessment.

That is worth blogging about, because sensitivity to ACTUAL danger, versus the trip-wire, brain-frozen fear of any POSSIBLE danger is one of the things Free-Range Kids is all about. When we, as a society, say, “I don’t care if it’s safe in1 billion cases, it’s that billionth case that matters!” then NOTHING seems safe. Not a kid playing in the park, not a kid eating a hot dog, and not a kid who accidentally (or even intentionally!) brought her dad’s fruit-paring knife to school. Unless you’re an apple, this just does not pose a threat in the hands of a normal school kid.

We are getting really good at substituting fear for reality. See the posts below this one about suing the Scouts for allowing boys to play in the semi-darkness, or about the recall of drop-side cribs. The fear that an item or activity might have any negative consequences EVER is enough to make us ignore any upside — even a huge one — and outlaw it.

And so we have this girl forbidden from stepping foot on campus because, in the words of the superintendent, “Bottom line is we want to ensure every child feels safe on our campus.”

If these “children” (actually high school students) don’t feel safe because one girl has a paring knife, it’s a good bet they will never feel safe. Which is why I blogged about this story, and why I run Free-Range Kids. Because in that situation, kids are ENTIRELY safe, and it is a BIG LIE to say they aren’t.

And it is a lie with consequences. — Lenore

Okay, here's one way to eat an apple WITHOUT using a paring knife. (But really I just loved this photo. The game looks so fun! Circa 1960.)

The Most Insane Zero Tolerance Story Yet

Hi Readers — Here you go. This is from a 25-year-old webmaster who lived n New Hope, PA., when he was 17 and this happened. He later moved to Canada, in part as a result of what this incident revealed to him about America:

Dear Free-Range Kids: I actually ran up against zero tolerance when I was in high school. I had carried a pocket knife with me my entire life (nothing scary, just a Swiss Army knife that was great for art projects or cutting cheese to put in my sandwich at lunch, but not much use if I ever wanted to hurt someone). Where I grew up, in Switzerland, we had “nature days” where everyone was instructed to bring a notebook, a pen, and a pocket knife so that they could take plant samples back to class for further study.

Then I moved to the U.S. Once again, I came from a culture where you were made fun of if you forgot your pocket knife on a school trip. Then I entered a post-Columbine/Zero Tolerance hell. I hadn’t used or even removed my knife from my bag while in school, but I did use it to cut a twig on my way home from school one day, and was apparently seen by one of my classmates. The next day, I was called into the principal’s office where my mother and a police officer waited. The police officer padded me down and searched my bag, obviously finding my knife (which was confiscated). He then escorted me and my mother off school grounds and I was told not to come back until the school called.

We waited in limbo for two weeks until we finally received word that I would have a hearing. I did. There were police officers present, as well as the principal and several members of the school board. It was decided that I should not be allowed back onto public school grounds for a full calendar year, but that I would be sent to a special private school for kids with behavioral problems. As for any legal consequences, the school decided not to press charges, but I would have an appointment with a probation officer who would decide what would be on my record and what my punishment would be.

When I went to the probation officer, he took one look at me and said, “You don’t belong here.” (I later found out why when I met some of the other people he saw on a regular basis!) He said that he had reviewed my case and that the school/police’s reaction was not appropriate, however a report had been made and he couldn’t reverse it. He gave me the lightest punishment he could – the incident would be wiped from my permanent record on my 18th birthday, I had to do a certain number of hours of community service, and I had to meet with a social worker once a week. I also had to notify his office ahead of time if I were leaving the state.

I volunteered regularly anyway, so the community service was no problem. My social worker said I was her “night off” and we just went to the movies once a week on the state dime. The private school I ended up going to was, apart from a couple rough characters, a really cool environment and, as the “trustworthy” student, I got a lot of privileges and responsibilities, including the opportunity of teaching an art class to three autistic 12-year-olds and acting as a teacher’s assistant in other classes.

All along the way, I was told again and again that the school and police’s reaction was completely un-called for. I had made no threats to anyone with my “weapon,” I had not even taken it out on school grounds, and there was a cultural barrier that should have been considered. I had a legitimate reason to carry a pocket knife (which I never got back, by the way). It was just post-Columbine hysteria run amok.

But the truly hurtful part of the whole story is that, about a month before all this started, a boy in my grade got a poor mark on a test and grabbed the first person he saw as he came out of the class (a 15-year-old about half his size) and threw him against a locker. The kid ended up with a broken arm and a lot of bruises. The culprit got a 2-day suspension. So it’s not even that Zero Tolerance is an awful thing that prevents people from using their heads, it also looks only to certain cues and completely ignores kids with real problems who pose a very real physical threat to others around them. No one ever sent this kid to a social worker or a therapist. It was just shrugged off as a “kids will be kids” matter that deserved no more than a slap on the wrist.

The fact that so many of the people who were trying to help me would say, “I would love to make this all go away, but my hands are tied” really scares me. Once you’re caught, there is no possibility of someone saying, “Wait a second, these laws don’t really apply in this case.” All you can do is try to find some wiggle room from within the system.

I think that’s the truest sign of a broken system. — G., in Canada

This is NOT Recommended by Free-Range Kids

Hi Readers! I know — some folks out there probably think this is how we Free-Rangers spend our weekends. But it ain’t. Watch and cringe: