Published October 13, 2009
A 17-year-old Eagle Scout in upstate New York has been barred from stepping foot on school grounds for 20 days — for keeping a 2-inch pocketknife locked in a survival kit in his car.
Matthew Whalen, a senior at Lansingburgh Senior High School, says he follows the Boy Scout motto and is always prepared, stocking his car with a sleeping bag, water, a ready-to-eat meal — and the knife, which was given to him by his grandfather, a police chief in a nearby town.
But Lansingburgh High has a zero-tolerance policy, and when school officials discovered that Whalen kept his knife locked in his car, he says, they suspended him for five days — and then tacked on an additional 15 after a hearing.
The incident is similar to the case of Zachary Christie, a 6-year-old Cub Scout in Delaware who faces up to 45 days in his district’s reform school for bringing a scout utensil that can be used as a fork, spoon and knife to school. But for Whalen — who has received an award from the Boy Scouts of America for saving a life and completed 10 weeks of basic military training last summer — the stakes are much higher:
He is concerned that the blot on his school record could kill his dream of attending West Point.
In an interview with Foxnews.com, Whalen recalled the incident that led to his suspension.
He said his school's assistant principal, Frank Macri, approached him on Sept. 21 and asked him if he was carrying a knife.
"I was taken down to the office, and they told me that a student told them that I was carrying a knife," Whalen said.
He said he told them "they could search me and everything, and they said, 'There's no need for that.'"
Whalen said he doesn't know who might have said he was carrying a knife, but he was open with school officials.
"And they said, 'Do you own a knife?' I said, 'Yes, I'm a soldier and an Eagle Scout — I own a knife.'
"And they were like, 'Well, is it in your car or anything?' And I told them, 'Yeah, it's in my car right now.'
"And they asked me to show it to them. I didn't realize it was going to be a problem. I knew it wasn't illegal — my police chief grandfather gave the knife to me."
Whalen said he took school administrators to his car because he thought their fears would be allayed when they saw it was just a 2-inch knife.
"They thought I had a dagger in my car or something like that, so I thought yeah, I'd show it to them," Whalen said.
"I showed it to them, and they told me I had a knife on school property and had to be suspended."
But things didn't end there, Whalen said.
"They brought a cop in, who told them 'he's not breaking any laws, so I can't charge him with anything.'"
Whalen said he asked Macri why a 2-inch pocketknife would be considered more dangerous than other everyday items around the school.
"I said to him, 'What about a person who has a bat, on a baseball team? That could be a weapon.' And he said, 'Well, it's not the same thing.'"
The school district's policy lists "Possessing a weapon" under "examples of violent conduct," which "may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from school."
School district officials did not reply to requests for comment.
Whalen says Macri gave him the longest suspension possible — five school days.
"They gave me the five-day suspension, because that is all a principal can suspend a student for," he said. "And from there, they had a superintendent hearing to see if the superintendent wanted to suspend me for longer.
"But the superintendent wasn't even at the hearing. It was the principal and the athletic director. The vice principal who originally suspended me wasn't even there, and neither was the superintendent. They basically asked me, 'Did you have the knife in your car?' And I said 'Yes, I did.' The meeting was recorded and they told me they were going to play the tape to the superintendent.
"They asked me if I wanted to say anything, and I told them all my accomplishments and what I've done, and the principal even admitted that I had no intent to use the knife, that I had no accessibility to the knife."
But school officials decided to suspend Whalen for an extra 15 days anyway, he said. And unless the decision is changed, he will not be allowed on school grounds until Oct. 21.
Whalen said he does not know why the 15 days were added, but he said a school district employee told him it was because the school wanted to apply its policies consistently.
"I've been told by someone who works for the district that they had to do it, because if someone else had a knife and they saw that I didn't get a suspension, that it would look bad for the school."
School superintendent George Goodwin and Lansingburg Senior High School Principal Angelina Bergin did not return calls for comment Tuesday morning.
Whalen said he has no record of disciplinary problems.
"I think I have a detention from like 10th grade for being late or something like that," he said.
He said the suspension has put his college dreams in jeopardy by keeping him out of class, while making him still responsible for assignments.
Though he is provided with a tutor for 90 minutes a day, he said, "I've been suspended for something like a ninth of my school year, so I'm falling behind drastically in my classes."
In addition to getting back to school as soon as possible, Whalen wants the school to drop the incident from his transcript.
"My dream college would be West Point, and having a pock mark like this on my record could be detrimental. They're looking for the best of the best, and if someone didn't take the time to look through it and examine the case, they would just say, 'hey, this guy had a weapon on school property, and we don't want him at our college.'"
Whalen said that he has received support from the community during the last few weeks.
"I've received tremendous communal support. Almost everyone I've talked to has said they're behind me 100 percent, that it's ridiculous that [the school has] done this me."
Whalen said he is not considering a lawsuit.
"I don't know what I could do, because technically ... I did break the rules, and I'll accept that punishment," he said.
"Perhaps I should have been more aware of the rules. However, I'm more upset about the additional 15 days.... That was entirely optional, and they decided to go through with that."