Published January 14, 2015
The parents of an Eagle Scout who was suspended from his upstate New York high school for a month over a 2-inch pocketknife he kept locked in his car have retained a lawyer to appeal their school district's zero-tolerance policies and demand that their son's record be cleared.
Education lawyer Victor DeBonis is working pro bono for the family of 17-year-old Matthew Whalen, who has been banned from Lansingburgh High School for 20 school days.
Whalen's father said he hopes the school board will reverse the decision of Lansingburgh Central School District Superintendent George Goodwin, who extended Matthew's initial five-day suspension into a monthlong sentence — and he is threatening a lawsuit if all other options are exhausted.
"If they overturn the superintendent's actions and expunge my son's record, I guess we're done," said Bryan Whalen, who said DeBonis filed the appeal Monday morning. "If they don't, then there will be further steps."
Whalen says the school district violated his son's due process by disregarding state education guidelines when they suspended him. Whalen said he received written notification of the suspension six days too late, according to state law.
The high school senior has nearly completed the term of his suspension, but Whalen's family hopes to have his record cleared by the time the teen applies to the U.S. Military Academy.
"It should be just reversed and expunged because it was just wrong — procedurally they did everything they could do wrong," the father said.
If the board refuses their appeal, he plans to press his case with the state's education commissioner. He said he hopes to avoid a lawsuit, which would have to prove concrete damages, a difficult and costly option for the family.
For the past month, Matthew Whalen has been getting just 90 minutes a day with a tutor instead of seven hours of instruction in class. He says he is worried that his suspension will mar his academic record and affect his application to West Point.
In suspending Matthew, Goodwin cited a zero-tolerance policy that bans all weapons from school grounds. The small utility knife — a gift from Matthew's grandfather, a police chief in a nearby town was part of a survival kit he kept in his car that included a sleeping bag, water and a ready-to-eat meal. The knife was discovered when school officials searched the teen's car.
Whalen, who completed a 10-week Army basic training session over the summer, was taught as an Eagle Scout how to handle tools including the pocketknife, and he instructs Boy Scouts how to safely handle knives.
But the school's rule book brands possession of a knife to be "violent" conduct, and leaves it to the discretion of the superintendent to determine the proper punishment. Goodwin has refused to budge on his decision, and has yet to speak to Whalen's family.
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 Matthew.
A monthly school board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 27, six days after Whalen is set to return to school, and the teen's family hopes that the issue will be addressed then or at a separate hearing.
Whalen's father says his district should follow the example of a school board in Delaware that last week unanimously overturned a decision ordering a 6-year-old Cub Scout to go to an alternative reform school for 45 days after he brought a fork-spoon-knife multi-tool to lunch.
"The ball is back in their court," he said. "Hopefully they'll just [follow] the direction like that Delaware school board did and correct the errors that the school made."