The Story of My Brother the Onion Boy – When Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense

When I moved my blog from Blogger to WordPress last summer I mistakenly assumed that all posts would seamlessly transfer.  I have since found the error in my thinking and have decided to re-post some of my more discussed posts that didn’t survive the move.  This is one of those posts.

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 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 possessing a knife.  And then the district’s zero tolerance policy took over.

Had this event occurred in Denmark, where we had moved from 4 years earlier, nothing would have happened.  In fact, knives in schools are a common occurrence as students bring them in to cut cakes or other foods.   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, all that mattered was that he had brought a dangerous weapon to school and that it could have fallen into the wrong hands, a person who could then use it as a weapon.  However, they gave my brother an out.  If he did not want to be expelled for a year all he would have to do was admit he committed a crime, submits to a psychological evaluation, and undergo an extensive anger management therapy program he would be allowed back into school sooner. 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 so the next year was more than 5 months away.

Most parents would not have fought a powerful district, 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 and the school district was shocked!  They had never had a family hire a lawyer before for an expulsion hearing!  When my parents opened up the hearing to the public, also unheard of, 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.   Luckily others saw more nuance in the situation and some radio hosts even made it their mission to make more people aware of it.  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 vigor 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.  In fact, “Here’s a child who has done well in school, who is compliant, smart, and if we haven’t gotten the message to him with a 15-day suspension, then we need our heads examined,” is what the independent examiner said.  After we breathed, hugged, and then realized the nightmare was finally over we started to see the how the victory was not just for my little brother, but for all of the students of his district because it prompted a review of the district’s zero tolerance policy.  In the end, a clause was added to the district policy 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 re-energize 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 utmost 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 24 now , and in Denmark studying for his bachelors degree.  I miss him dearly, but 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.  Another victim of zero common sense.




3 thoughts on “The Story of My Brother the Onion Boy – When Zero Tolerance Makes Zero Sense”

  1. This is a stunning account. I really struggle with one-size fits all policies. My belief is to ask questions, listen, understand and find a proper solution. We create policies all to often so we don’t have to take the time to listen. We feel safe behind our policies…the truth is, in this situation the policy was all wrong.

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