Could we try zero tolerance for ignorant school disciplinary decisions?

“Zero tolerance” policies have been applied to a 13-year-old who drew a picture of a gun and to a six-year-old Cub Scout who dared to bring his camp utensil to school. Similarly, they have been applied to students who have done nothing more than say words the school decided must be threatening. But just when you think administrators could not possibly come up with a less justifiable excuse to ignore common sense, George Goodwin comes to the rescue.

Goodwin, superintendent of Lansingburgh Central School District in upstate New York,  has decided to enforce his district’s unwritten zero tolerance rule against 17-year-old Matthew Whalen, accused of having a knife in the trunk of his car while he was in the school building.

Whalen is an Eagle Scout. The knife was a two-inch pocketknife, given to him by his grandfather, a police chief from an adjacent town. And the pocketknife itself was in a survival kit, something many Americans have in the trunks of their cars—particularly in places like upstate New York, where snow can be more than a mere nuisance and not all homes are in walking distance of places like, say, work or school.

When I was a scout, you learned about knife safety long before you ever touched one. By the time I was a First Class scout, I had my Totin’ Chip, certifying that I had been trained to safely use and handle woodland tools, including pocketknives. As an Eagle Scout, Whalen is at the point where he is expected to train scouts and sign off on their training toward obtaining their Totin’ Chip.

I am not sure how Goodwin has decided that school rules prevent an Eagle Scout from keeping the ordinary contents of his emergency kit in his trunk, but I am sure it is a bad decision. Equally perplexing is Goodwin’s assertion that, as superintendent, he’s somehow beholden to an unwritten zero tolerance policy. If such a thing as an unwritten policy can exist—and legally, I would doubt it could be, consistently with due process—there certainly can’t be anything holding back a superintendent, the highest administrative position in a school district, from declining to apply it.  In effect, Goodwin is asserting he can’t change a rule that he made, even though he never quite put it in writing. It’s a paradox of biblical proportions (can a superintendent make a boulder so big he can’t lift it, too?).

But I can only be grateful to Goodwin. The attention this case has brought to zero tolerance has renewed calls for administrators to take responsibility, use their brains, and apply common-sense limits to zero-tolerance enforcement. And if we can stop and use common sense when it comes to punishing students who use knives, we can certainly stop and use common sense when it comes to punishing students who use words, like blog posts, underground newspapers, and social networking services.

Models of personal discipline and community service, Eagle Scouts have always been paragons of the American way of life. Just by standing up for common sense, this scout might end up defending another American value: free speech.