Many years ago, during my detective days, I was handed a sensitive case outside my usual practice (burglaries from motor vehicles and stalkers/sex crimes). A high school student was about to be expelled from school for having a knife on school property. My superiors never particularly told me why they handed it to me, but I suspect it was because they knew that I was the only officer on the Department with a degree in education and experience as a teacher. They figured I’d be able to walk in both worlds. Doing sensitive investigations involving other politically charged local agencies/entities is often a part of the job of police detectives. My job, ostensibly, was to assess the incident to determine if criminal charges were required.
The facts were simple. The young man involved was a good student and citizen, with no school discipline record and no criminal record, not so much as a traffic ticket. He was working on his pickup truck as part of his assignments in his auto shop class, and when one of his fellow students ran off to another part of the shop with his wire cutters, he dove into an old toolbox in his truck and found an old, relatively dull knife that had been languishing in the bottom of the toolbox for as long as his father owned it, and used it to strip a few wires. The shop teacher saw the deadly weapon, seized the knife, and dutifully reported the dangerous and shocking incident.
I quickly determined that no law had been violated, and that while merely possessing the knife on school property was a violation of school rules, to do anything more than tell the young man to leave the knife at home would be ridiculous. This I dutifully recorded in my official report, which I delivered to the Principal, and eventually, to the school board.
This gave the Principal, and the School Board, an out. They had, if they wished to take advantage of the opportunity, the Police giving them a chance to do the right thing.
Surprisingly, the adults behaved like adults and took my advice. The young man, and his single mother, were delighted, and police– community relations took a very positive bump upward, for at least a while. This occurred, however, in South Dakota, where carrying a pocketknife, firearms, and tools, are not generally considered crimes against the state. In fact, at the time, no one had so much as heard of social justice. Lucky them.
Not everyone is so fortunate, as Reason.com reports:
Two Escondido, California, high school students—ages 16 and 18—could see their whole lives derailed because they committed the crime of keeping fishing supplies in cars they parked on school property.
The elder teen, Brandon Cappelletti, had three knives in his car: the remnants of a family fishing trip. The knives were used to cut lines and filet fish. The younger teen, Sam Serrato, had a pocketknife in his glove compartment. His father had left it there.
Both teens are facing expulsion. Cappelletti, a legal adult, could serve jail time if convicted of weapons charges, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.
How did the police get involved? The school hired a drug sniffing dog, which alerted on Cappelletti’s car. He had drugs? Advil. It’s not clear how they got into Serrato’s vehicle, but ultimately, a school resource officer charged them with misdemeanor weapons possession. This is California, after all.
At this point, the criminal matter and school matter are two different things. The school district is deciding at a hearing today whether to increase their punishments from suspension—they have already been out of school for weeks—to expulsion. Such a harsh punishment would jeopardize Serrato’s future: he’s relying on athletic scholarships to attend college.
‘If I end up getting expelled, I’d have to go to a community college,’ he told The Union-Tribune. ‘It’s not what I really want to do. My whole life would change.’
Cappelletti has enlisted in the Marine Corp, so he’s more worried about the criminal charges, which could completely derail those plans. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In any case like this involving a school, criminal law and school regulations are always involved. Often, school rules are more stringent in definition and application than criminal law. I refer, of course, to “zero tolerance” policies, which virtually always devolve to zero common sense policies.
However, there are a great many checks and balances that can, at least theoretically prevent injustice. The first levels involve state legislators who can refrain from writing laws that criminalize such innocuous “crimes” as carrying a pocketknife, in one’s pocket or glovebox. Unfortunately, this kind of rationality is generally too much to ask.
School Boards can also refrain from writing rules that do not actually contribute to establishing and maintaining a proper educational climate, but that too is often too much to ask.
Even with overly broad, even irrational and abusive laws and rules, there are many opportunities for adult involvement. The first level would be educators. They have the discretion not to mindlessly enforce mindless rules. They also have the discretion to avoid turning over to the police matters that do not invoke the criminal law. What are clearly knives used for fishing left in a car, not carried, not brandished, not used as weapons, not even so much as means of making a threat, are dangerous to no one, not even fish. Any rational teacher could easily pass on this one.
The next level in any school would be principals. They too have substantial discretion, and are expected to be wiser, perhaps more experienced in disciplinary matters. They can thank a teacher for doing their duty, and then quietly turn a non-crime into a “don’t bring them to school again, please” resolution. Unfortunately, this requires a little effort and a little thinking, and this is, after all, California.
Then the police come into play. They have substantial power and substantial discretion. They are expected to know the difference between real criminals and people caught up in the letter of an ill-conceived law with no criminal intent. It is always possible that there is more to this case than the Reason article provides, but it’s hard to imagine what it might be. If the boys actually brandished the knives, carried them into the school, did something obviously criminal or dangerous with them, surely the police and schools would have made this known.
School resource officers, particularly, should know better. These are police officers that work with kids every day. No rational resource officer is an unremitting hard ass, nailing any kid he can find for any reason or no reason. Such people don’t last long in a school environment, and good cops understand that it so much easier, and safer, to work with human beings if you’re not purposely pissing them off.
And then there is logic. Any principal contemplating discipline must ask “what purpose does this serve?” If the facts are as they are reported to be, the obvious answer is “none.” These young men are clearly not criminals. They had no criminal intent. They endangered no one. Punishing them would be no more deterrent than punishing the young man I investigated all those years ago.
But that was South Dakota. This is California.