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School Chief Sticks By 'Zero Tolerance' Ruling for Eagle Scout

Call him Mr. Zero Tolerance.

The upstate New York school superintendent who suspended an Eagle Scout for 20 days for keeping a 2-inch utility knife locked in his car is unwilling to speak to the teen's family or bend in his ruling.

Lansingburgh Central School District Superintendent George J. Goodwin, 55, said in a written statement that his district "has an established policy of zero tolerance with respect to the possession of weapons of any kind on school property or in school buildings."

But nowhere in the school district's rule book, which is published online, is there any mention of a "zero tolerance" policy, leading some to question whether Goodwin, in fact, was compelled to suspend the youth.

Seventeen-year-old Matthew Whalen, a senior at Lansingburgh High School in Troy, N.Y., says he got in trouble over a survival kit he keeps in his car that includes a sleeping bag, water, a ready-to-eat meal and the small pocketknife, which was given to him by his grandfather, a police chief in a nearby town.

When Whalen acknowledged he had the knife locked in his car, he was barred from school for a calendar month. Now that he is getting just 90 minutes a day with a tutor instead of 7 hours of instruction in class, he says he is worried that the suspension will mar his academic record and affect his application to attend the U.S. Military Academy.

Whalen was initially suspended for five days by his assistant principal — but then had another 15 tacked on by Goodwin following a hearing to decide his fate. Though Goodwin was not present at the hearing, he told Fox News he listened to a tape of the proceedings, and decided to extend the suspension.

Since then, Whalen's family says, Goodwin has refused to speak to Matthew even during daily interactions at the district's head office, where he meets with his tutor.

District policy appears to leave it to the discretion of school officials to decide whether any punishment will be meted out for an infraction, and it is not clear how or why Goodwin decided on a month of exile for a student with no prior record. The school's policies say:

"Students may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including suspension from school" for engaging in violent conduct, which includes merely "possessing a weapon."

Though the school has branded possession of the knife to be violent conduct, that might be news to Whalen, who was taught as an Eagle Scout how to handle tools including the pocketknife, and actually instructs Boy Scouts how to handle knives as well.

"Scouting instills safety in them from the earliest age," Matthew's father, Bryan Whalen, said in an interview. "And it's actually the older boys like Matthew who instruct the younger boys in knife safety."

The Boy Scouts of America, which awarded Whalen a Life-Saving Heroism award for performing CPR on his aunt after she had a seizure, concurred.

"Our handbook teaches the appropriate use and safe use of a variety of tools, and that includes pocketknives," said Deron Smith, national spokesman for the Boy Scouts of America National Council.

The ruling from Goodwin has outraged Whalen's family, which said if district officials are unable to use their own judgment, their roles aren't necessary.

"I don't think it's unreasonable to ask for some intelligence on the part of administrators to use discretion and judgment in their daily decisions," said Bryan Whalen. "Otherwise, what are we paying them for?

"You could have a trained monkey or a computer sitting there just spitting out right and wrong and never any gray areas. That's just not the way the world works," he told Foxnews.com.

Goodwin's office did not return repeated requests for comment from Foxnews.com. His office took a message seeking an interview, but one was not granted.

But the superintendent said Tuesday in an interview with the Albany Times Union that he thinks the punishment was "appropriate and fair," a necessary application of the district's zero-tolerance policy.

"Sometimes young people do things they may not see as serious," he told the paper. "We look at any possession of any type of knife as serious."

Zero-tolerance policies for weapons were widely put in place following the passage of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act; they became more popular after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

But in recent years the rigid rules have come under increasing fire in school districts across the country. Texas eased its law statewide in early October.

Bryan Whalen said that hundreds of e-mails, calls and letters have been sent on his son's behalf to the school district urging a change in the policy, including one from his local scoutmaster that arrived the day of the suspension hearing.

"The school district must be getting deluged with that," he said. "It's spreading like wildfire."

To contact the Lansingburgh Central School District superintendent, call: (518) 233-6850 or e-mail: ggoodwin@lansingburgh.org.