The family of a southern Minnesota high school junior expelled for bringing a pocketknife used for farm chores to school is asking state education officials to overturn the punishment, arguing the district’s zero-tolerance policy goes too far.
Alyssa Drescher was expelled from United South Central High School in Faribault County on April 24 after a drug-sniffing dog stopped at her locker. A subsequent search found no drugs but the small knife she said she threw into her purse after helping with chores at her boyfriend’s family farm.
A three-day suspension quickly led to expulsion, causing Drescher to miss her prom, be tutored at home for the rest of the school year and worry if it will hurt her chances to get into college. Her family argues the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
“My first response was, ‘OK, what’s wrong with that?’ We don’t think of a pocketknife as a weapon. We think of it as a tool,” said her father, Rick Drescher, when first told of the knife.
Her case has generated an outpouring of support and questions about whether zero-tolerance policies need to accommodate cases where no harm was intended. And some districts have backed off zero tolerance, instead giving principals more discretion to craft a punishment.
“This is another example of horribly stupid policies,” Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said about her case.
In addition to a Facebook page supporting her case, nearly two dozen Republican state legislators signed a letter urging district superintendent Jerry K. Jensen to find a “speedy and common sense solution” that will allow Drescher back into school, calling her a model student.
Her attorney, Chris Johnson, is preparing to ask the Department of Education to use its statutory power to overturn the expulsion. If that fails, he plans to ask the Minnesota Court of Appeals to intervene and review the department’s action. But neither is likely to happen before the school year ends, Johnson said.
Jensen said the expulsion is the second that the district has ordered this school year for a weapons policy violation, but the appeal would be the first in his five years in the Wells, Minn.-based district. He said the district generally follows the model policy on the topic developed by the Minnesota School Boards Association.
Drescher’s troubles began over a mid-April weekend, when she went to her boyfriend’s farm to help with chores. She used the small knife, which has a blade that’s 2-3/4 inches, her father gave her to cut open feed bags for his family’s calves.
Later, she threw the knife in her purse, and forgot about it until two days later when a dog-aided search for drugs marked her locker. Police say any drug scent could have come from incidental contact with someone who used them. But she fessed up to the knife.
She was told by school officials that she was suspended for three days, but the next day, her father said, Jensen told him he was recommending expulsion for 12 months. The school board later trimmed that to the rest of the school year.
Since she has been expelled, Alyssa has been picking up longer shifts in her part-time job as a grocery store cashier. She’s worried that her teachers aren’t sending home enough homework to allow her to keep up her classes, and said that the teachers who provide her with five hours a week of homebound instruction aren’t able to help her much with her math and science work.
She’s worried about graduating on time next year, and concerned that her expulsion will blackball her chances of getting into college, which is why she’s appealing.
The expulsion has had social consequences as well. She and her boyfriend of three years paid $500 in upfront expenses for last Saturday’s prom, but she was not allowed to go. Nor can she attend his varsity baseball games, even if they’re away games. And she’s lost confidence in some adults responsible for her education.
“I just didn’t get it at first why they wanted to get me expelled,” she said. “This is the first mistake you made and you can’t say teenagers don’t make mistakes. Now I don’t trust as many people as I used to, and my teachers, I think differently of them now. They didn’t stand up for me. I would stand up for them.”
The state is allowed to sustain expulsions, overturn them or send them back for reconsideration, weighing constitutionality, whether the district followed proper procedures and acted within its authority, whether the decision was supported by evidence, and whether the decision was arbitrary and capricious.
Different punishment for lighter?
While preparing the appeal, Johnson said other kids who have brought prohibited items to school didn’t get expelled.
For example, he said, one school board member’s child brought a lighter, which is also on the district’s weapons list, and is supposed to trigger a recommendation that the student be expelled, according to the student handbook.
Board Chair Kathy Krebsbach didn’t return Star Tribune inquiries, and Jensen indicated that state data practices law prohibits him from responding on individual discipline.
The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district is one district that has backed off zero tolerance, instead giving school officials latitude to consider such criteria as a student’s age, behavioral history and special needs and the circumstances that led the student to bring a weapon.
That followed a case in which a seventh-grader who used the scissors on a Swiss army knife to work on a class project was suspended and headed for suspension when his father withdrew him from the district.
Zero-tolerance policies became popular in the 1990s, and the United South Central district’s policy mandates immediate suspension, confiscation of the weapon, immediate notification of police and parent or guardian and a dismissal recommendation.