School justice


Christopher Dashner, the Blissfield High School junior who was suspended for inadvertently bringing a knife on a school trip, is a victim of a school policy that, even when it was not rigidly applied, had too little flexibility.

In response to violent incidents such as the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado that left 15 people dead, many schools toughened their "zero tolerance" policies on weapons. That led to absurdities such as the punishment of a Coventry, R.I., second grader whose school project was banned because the tiny Army figures he glued on his hat carried even tinier guns.

The Blissfield incident did not rise to that level of senselessness. But it shows what can happen when justice is thought to be not only blind, but also inflexible.

Mr. Dashner discovered the pocketknife in his backpack on a band trip to New York and New Jersey during spring break. He gave the knife to a chaperone, who told the band director, who told the school district superintendent. Everyone up to this point did the right thing.

Then the district suspended the honor student and Boy Scout for the rest of the school year. The public outcry was loud.

This week, Mr. Dashner respectfully pleaded his case before the school board, which responded to his appeal -- and, more important, public outrage -- by reducing his suspension to 10 days. He'll still miss his prom and another band trip, but at least he won't miss any more class time before final exams.

The student should be commended for the honesty, maturity, and responsibility he has shown. He turned himself in knowing that he would be disciplined, worked within the system to lessen his sentence, and hasn't whined.

But Blissfield school officials could use a refresher course in jurisprudence. Although everyone should be treated equally before the law, that doesn't mean that everyone must be punished in exactly the same manner.

Instead, the law is at its best when those who judge a situation look at all the circumstances, not just the transgression, before they dole out punishment.

Zero-tolerance policies were designed to save school officials from having to exercise their judgment and then justify their decisions. But administrators need confidence and support to use their discretion more often, not less.

Zero tolerance also teaches students that the law is arbitrary and distinct from justice.

That bad lesson is likely only to encourage disrespect for the law.