being a teacher, common sense, punishment

The Story of My Brother the Onion Boy

When I was 22, my 12 year old little brother brought a knife to school. Now before people freak out, it was a steak knife, kept in his backpack, until he needed to use it to cut open an onion.  You see, his 6th grade classroom had different plant experiments and my brother’s group had decided that they would slice open an onion in a live demonstration to show the rest of the class all of the layers and even have them smell it.  So he prepared as any normal Danish student would and packed one of our normal serrated dinner knives in his backpack.  Come science time, much to his teacher’s horror he pulled out the knife.  His teacher, a calm and cautious woman, sent him straight to the principal’s office for a knife possession.  And then zero tolerance took over.

Had this event occurred in Denmark, nothing would have happened, in fact, my friends and I had a birthday cake commitment where every time someone had a birthday, cake and a massive bread knife was brought to school.  No big deal.  However, in this post-Columbine American era, no chances were to be taken.  So when my little brother, a straight A student, threatened to cut up that onion he was expelled from school for a year.  The school board argued that intent did not matter, what mattered was that he had brought a dangerous weapon to school and that it could fall into the wrong hands, a person who could then use it as a weapon.  They also argued that to be released back into the school system faster all he would have to do was admit he committed a crime, undergo extensive anger management therapy and anger management therapy.  The school district urged my parents to take the punishment, have him admit his guilt, and then he could return to school the following school year.  Mind you, this was March.

Most parents would not have fought, but mine did.  They saw injustice being made and more importantly, they realized that zero tolerance with no perspective of situation made zero sense.  So they hired a lawyer, a family friend who specializes in bankruptcy law, but has a sharp tongue and even sharper intellect.  The school district was shocked!  They had never had a family hire a lawyer before for an expulsion hearing and when my parents opened up the hearing to the public, the media caught wind of it.  I cannot tell you how strange it is to drive to work and have the local morning radio team lambast your little brother ,who they felt was just another privileged white kid trying to get out of his rightful punishment.  And so I swore at the radio, tried to protect my little brother, who admittedly had made a stupid mistake but a mistake nonetheless, and waited for the hearing.

I don’t think there has ever been so many people to an expulsion hearing before.  I also think a lot of people were shocked at the vigorousness with which the school district’s lawyer went after my little brother.    Had my parents not been in a situation to hire their own lawyer, it would have been a bloodbath, with a 6th grader as its victim.  The hearing lasted 3 1/2 hours with witnesses being called to testify to my brother’s character and intent.  My brother swore he did not realize he was doing anything wrong.  Finally after 3 1/2 hours, the independent examiner told the district that the 15 days my bother had been out of school was enough punishment and that this eagerness to prosecute was overkill.  It was a victory not just for my little brother, whom we still refer to as onion boy, but for all of the students of his district because it prompted a review of the district’s zero tolerance policy, and a clause was added much later that each case had to be evaluated and could not just be judged based on the same language.  A small but righteous victory indeed.

So what made me think of this even that occurred 9 years ago?  A line in this article “How I Joined Teach for America – And Got Sued for $20 Million” in which the writer states, ” Furthermore, I saw from the first month that she generally gave delinquents no more than a stern talking-to, followed by a pat on the back, rather than suspensions, detentions, or any other meaningful punishment.”
Meaningful punishment?  Why does those words seem to not go together?  To me they appear almost opposite of each other.  Meaningful?  When you punish a child, it is to punish, not to have them reflect or rethink, but to judge them based on their actions and then hurt them in some way, not necessarily physically.  When we suspend students, we punish them by removing them from the privilege of learning, even though this sometimes is the worst thing that can happen to them.  When we punish students for not doing their homework by keeping them in from recess, then we are taking away their rightful time to renew and reenergize before we expect them to learn again.  What would a meaningful punishment look like?  There can be a consequence, but a punishment?

So I ask you, is there such a thing as meaningful punishment?  Is it our job as educators to punish our students?  My brother fell victim to a zero tolerance policy that wanted to punish him to the outmost of its capabilities, without common sense, without the “punishment” fitting the “crime.”  He was not angry, nor was he a criminal, and yet the district deemed him as such.  Since when do we get to lose our common sense when we make rules and them apply them blindly?  When do we realize that it is children’s futures we have in our hands and not just percentages or statistics, but real live kids that are deeply affected by our decisions to punish.

As for Christian, he is 21 now, traveling in Asia and about to go to Denmark to study.  I miss him dearly and will never forget that phone call I got from his school back in 2002, when I was sick on my mom’s couch, telling me that he had been caught with a knife, and that scared look when he realized what was going to happen to him.

6 thoughts on “The Story of My Brother the Onion Boy”

  1. Too often punishment is administered to appease the public, alleged victim or others more distant from the ‘scene of the crime’. When we craft consequences and supports for people who have made mistakes, even errant ones like your brother did, it takes courage to swim upstream until the media lights die down. Support for those who make mistakes is a matter of taking steps to try and make sure it does not happen again, and in my opinion the best way to do this is to form stronger relationships. I have a similar example to share, but it is a little too fresh to share at the moment. Funny thing, I updated my blog last night in writing about our in-school suspension system – you might find it interesting…

  2. My son has just resently been suspened for 10 days for bring his pocket knife to school. He made a great mistake that morning when he put it in his pocket. My 12 years old is a sweet and innocent young boy. He is in the Boy Scouts. And resently earned his totmanship badge, which clears him to use the knife. So when he was im wood shop class he took out his pocket knife to show his peers at his table that he had a knife that he uses to cut wood. It was a quick flash. He never at anytime opened it or threatened to use it. It wasnt until after wood shop and the period after that they called him to the office to investigate the knife issue. Apparently a student went running to the asst principal…about sone one having a knife. My son has a court date and a hearing with the superintendent regarding possible expulion. I am so nervous My son is so gentle and,wouldnt hurt a fly.

  3. This is a very well written blog post. Just recently I took my son to our local Hunter Safety Course. He wants to hunt on his own eventually. The instructor told us about when he was a kid in rural Pennsylvania, that after he would check his traps, it was common practice for him to bring his pelts and his 22 caliber rifle into school and lock it in his locker. That was in the 1970's. Times have changed.

  4. Dear anonymous, I hope that you got anlwayer involvedor someone to help you through this perilous journey. I feel for you, I feel the injustice and hope it all works out.Rick, you are right, the times have changed. I know that school violence has lead to these changes, but at the same time, we also appear to have lst ourcommon sense. When it comes to weapons in school, we must always protect our children, but only when protection is needed. There are enough problems to work on, we do not need to create more. Thank you for your comment.

  5. We live in exciting times, however the cotton wool culture of knee jerk reactions to innocent activities is madness.I really liked your post, thanks for sharing.

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