By MARK O'BRIEN
LANSINGBURGH, N.Y. — There's a reason 17-year-old Matthew Whalen is smiling after all the attention his suspension is getting.
The military academy he's wanted to attend since first grade has told Matthew not to worry.
“The Director of Admissions at West Point called and told me that this would be a non-issue for my application there,” Matthew says. That's no guarantee that he'll be accepted, but Matthew says it's an assurance that the suspension won't be the reason he doesn't get into the school.
NEWS10 first told Matthew's story last week. He's an Eagle Scout and a National Guard soldier who was given 20 days suspension for having a pocket knife with a two-inch blade locked in his car in the school parking lot.
“I don't know what they were trying to prove with this suspension,” Matthew says. His suspension ends on Oct. 21.
The Lansingburgh Central School District has a zero-tolerance policy on weapons. The Code of Conduct prohibits any kind of weapon at school, as well as anything that reasonably could be considered a weapon.
A Lansingburgh parent, who says she's on a leadership committee for the district, says rules have to be enforced, regardless of who might be at fault. She asked to keep her identity anonymous, but said she knew of Matthew from his hanging out with other students in her neighborhood. She describes Matthew as “a great citizen with an exceptional reputation,” but she says no one is immune from the rules.
Part of the reason for the district's strict policy is an incident that happened on Mar. 13, 2002 outside of the high and middle schools. A freshman stabbed an eighth grader using a knife he had in his pocket once school let out.
Kevin Quinn at the University at Albany has studied school behavioral problems for nearly 30 years. He says incidents such as that, as well as shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, and an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania, have brought about an abundance of zero-tolerance policies at schools across the country in order to prevent the “what if” from happening.
Quinn says it's easy to criticize schools for such policies because schools are perceived as being too harsh before something happens or too late after a tragedy.
“Given those choices, they find uniform implementation of the policy their best approach,” he says.
As for Matthew, it's been a tough lesson to learn. He admits he'll have to read school policies more carefully in the future, but he also says he hopes districts will learn that zero-tolerance policies don't help everyone and that punishments should fit the offense. Still, Matthew says now that he's been in touch with West Point, he's relieved to have the chance to explain his situation. It appears as though all hope is not lost yet.
“I'd say I'm about 80 percent a go,” Matthew says, “so I feel good about it.”