To the Point for 4/6/2006

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A STORY IN THE Indianapolis Star earlier this week gave me cause to stop and think about the state of our society, and its ramifications on our future.

An eighth grader at Stonybrook Middle School on the east side of Indianapolis had gotten out of the car of his friend’s parent recently and was walking to the front door of his school when he put his hands in his coat pocket for a little warmth.

That’s when things got interesting.

When he put his hands in his pockets, the boy discovered that he still had a pocket knife in his pocket, which he had been using to whittle some wood the last time he had the coat on.

As he walked to the school doors, he knew what he had to do.

And that’s when things got really interesting.

Elliot Voge walked through the door and immediately into the school office. In the office, he explained to the school treasurer that he had inadvertently brought the knife to school, and he wanted to give it to them before going on into the building.

From there, the school principal was notified of the situation, and he took action:

He suspended Elliot Voge for 10 days from school, and recommended that the school board hold an expulsion hearing so that the boy could be expelled for the remainder of the school year.

The principal cited the school system’s “zero tolerance” policy as justification for his actions.

The boy is a good student, and had never been in trouble previously in the school. He had been recommended for accelerated classes next year when he enters high school.

Because of the suspension, he failed two courses, and his grades were falling in the others.

All because this young man did what most of us would think was the right thing to do.

Here’s a kid who’s not caused any problems, who finds something in his pocket and immediately realizes that he shouldn’t have it at school; and does the responsible thing and takes it to the school office.

He could have easily just hung his coat in his locker and said nothing and hoped that no one found it during the day, but he chose to do what he felt was right.

His reward for acting responsibly? A suspension and possible expulsion.

Because those are the rules.

It is unfortunate that a state exists in our educational system today where blanket policies must cover each and every student in each and every instance. Our students are now faceless statistics, rather than being individuals.

We all have unique circumstances in everything that we do, and none of us would like to be painted with such a broad brush.

Yes, schools today are much different than they were a generation ago, but why are we intent on punishing each and every child in exactly the same way?

Shouldn’t our school officials be able to give some leeway to treat each student as an individual?

Should a student have a knife at school? Absolutely not. But we are overreacting when we immediately break out the rule book and apply justice without regard to circumstances?

Obviously, here is a child who made a mistake — we all do, regardless of age — and then tried to correct his mistake. He has now seen his good deed turn into a nightmare.

Lesson learned? Be sneaky next time.

Don’t tell the truth and hide all evidence of wrong doing. Don’t try and be a responsible member of your school community; because it will only get you into more trouble than you care to be in; and it’s just not worth the effort.

Hide everything you may think is a violation. Better yet, stick it in a friend’s locker, that way if there’s some inspection or lock down, he’ll get caught and punished and you can continue on your merry way.

This case drew national attention; and because of that the school superintendent has withdrawn the petition for expulsion and Elliot Voge is back in school and is being allowed to make up the work he missed. His parents are still out $2,500 in legal fees because of all of this.

That begs the final question: if the rules are good a proper and are supported by the school corporation, then why ignore them when faced with a national spotlight? If they truly think their actions were fair and just, then why change them just because of publicity?

The school corporation in question either needs to allow itself some “wiggle room” on different issues; or it needs to say “These are our rules, and when they are broken, we have this punishment, no exceptions.”

What needs to happen is that schools need to get back to a policy of talking with each student like they are a responsible person in our society, and based on past actions and attitudes, administer consequences in a fair and open manner.

Don’t set policies and then ignore them when television cameras get turned on. Address each issue individually with the student and parents, and maybe you won’t have to backslide and look silly later.