As a 17-year-old Eagle Scout continues to wait out a one-month suspension from his upstate New York high school for having a 2-inch pocketknife locked in a survival kit in his car, the U.S. Military Academy says the missed school days could pose a big problem when it reviews his application.
Pressure is mounting on a Troy, N.Y., school board to overrule Matthew Whalen's suspension from Lansingburgh High School, which was issued because of a zero-tolerance policy that is facing increasing opposition from parents and education advocates.
Whalen, a senior, says he stocks his car with a sleeping bag, water, a ready-to-eat meal and the small knife, which was given to him by his grandfather, a police chief in a nearby town.
But Lansingburgh High has a zero-tolerance policy for weapons, 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.
On Wednesday, West Point's director of admissions told Foxnews.com that Whalen's suspension alone wouldn't be a "show-stopper" and "didn't appear to be a big issue" for the youth, though it will appear on his record as the military academy considers his moral and ethical fiber.
"My concern would be, how does this impact on his academics?" said Col. Deborah McDonald, the academy's head of admissions. "Because 20 (school) days is a long time to be suspended."
But the Lansingburgh School District is not budging. A person reached at the home of a school board member referred all calls to the superintendent, who told a local newspaper he thinks the punishment was "appropriate and fair," and that it was necessary for the district to enforce its zero-tolerance policy evenly.
"Sometimes young people do things they may not see as serious," Superintendent George Goodwin told the Albany Times-Union. "We look at any possession of any type of knife as serious."
Yet the knife is not considered a weapon by the New York State Education Department — definitions and punishments are left up to local school boards to decide.
"Districts by law are given a great deal of discretion for the conditions they impose," said Jonathan Burman, spokesman for the Education Department.
"The discipline that's meted out ... [is] a matter of local discretion," he said, and "simply here if the school board decides to make a change in their policy it's a matter for them to decide."
Whalen's family says they've given up hope that their school district will rethink the penalty, even after a school board in Delaware reversed a similar decision Tuesday night, granting a reprieve to a 6-year-old first-grader who had been ordered to attend a reform school for 45 days after he brought a Cub Scout camping utensil to lunch.
"The board hasn't even taken the issue," said Bryan Whalen, Matthew's father. "As far as the superintendent is concerned, he's made his decision and we haven't been offered the opportunity to even appeal that at a board meeting."
That policy is coming under fire from some education advocates, who say it is "pernicious" and inflexible and must be overturned.
"I just don't believe zero tolerance is the right way to go," said John Young, a board member in the Delaware school district that voted unanimously Tuesday night to reinstate 6-year-old Zachary Christie.
Young, who was not aware of the details of Whalen's case, said that as long as the school didn't have reason to suspect any intent to use the knife, "I don't see any reason why it shouldn't be overturned."
Young says the zero-tolerance policies were born in the wake of the 1999 Columbine school massacre, and were a response to worries from parents that school security needed to be beefed up. Though he doesn't support the policies, he said he understand the impulse to ensure school safety.
But Bryan Whalen says the policy allowed no room for his son, who did not pose a danger to the school. "It was another example of an administration not providing any thought, just trying to hide behind a blind rule for whatever reason."
Whalen said his son is more or less resigned to his fate but is still bewildered that he's in trouble over possession of a "keychain knife" after he handled M16s during an Army basic training course he completed over the summer.
He's "frustrated because he knows he's falling so far behind on his studies — he's missing a ninth of his senior year," Whalen said.
But Whalen says his son is feeling reassured from positive feedback he's getting from cadets at West Point who have "contacted him through Facebook and told him they're behind him and to keep fighting.
"'When he gets down there he'll be carrying a machine gun around campus,'" they wrote.