It seems a paradox: Lane Cottingham, 11, doesn’t like school, but he was unhappy at not being able to go for two weeks.
Instead of being with his pals in the classrooms and hallways of West Middle School, Lane was cooped up at home, mainly doing chores and homework.
But that wasn’t why he was upset.
He didn’t like the circumstances of his forced absence: He was suspended for 10 school days for taking a pocket knife to school, a punishment his parents say was excessive.
High schools in the Rapid City Area Schools district warn of a zero-tolerance policy toward students who bring weapons to school grounds. The high school handbook says any such infraction can be punished with a long-term suspension or expulsion.
District elementary and middle schools make judgments on a case-by-case basis, though experience shows that a suspension seems a certain consequence for students who carry weapons. Thus, for the sake of consistency, it seems clear that Lane was destined for a suspension.
“We want to make sure students understand there are boundaries,” said Brad Berens, assistant superintendent of Rapid City Area Schools. “We realize there are circumstances within boundaries, but above all, we want to take steps to keep everyone safe.”
The Lane Cottingham case is an example of a not-infrequent occurrence in Rapid City Area Schools, and it highlights how school officials apply the district’s policies.
How it started
According to Lane, his brush with school authorities started after an incident on Jan. 8 while he was changing clothes for his gym class at West Middle School. A pocket knife, with its blade folded into the handle, fell out of his jeans, he said.
A classmate picked up the knife. “He just gave it back to me and said, ‘Is this yours?’ So I said, ‘Yeah,’” Lane recalled. “I put it back in my pocket and put my jeans with the knife in the pocket in my locker.”
Lane’s explanation for having the knife in the first place: He had seen it lying around at home that morning and put it in his pocket to give back to his 14-year-old brother, Ryan, who liked to do wood carving.
Lane’s gym teacher heard about the knife and asked for it. After school that day, Lane was called to the assistant principal’s office, where he waited for his father, Shane, who also had been asked to come in. For violating the School District’s rule against bringing weapons to school, the sixth-grader was suspended for 10 days.
Because Lane had accidentally taken the knife to school, didn’t hurt anyone and it was his first-ever such offense, his parents said the punishment was unnecessarily harsh. The case, they said, shows a zero-tolerance policy at work since the circumstances surrounding his offense didn’t seem to matter in deciding his punishment.
“If you Google no-tolerance policies versus common sense, you’ll see stories like this across the entire nation, where kids are getting punished for ludicrous things,” Lane’s mother, Mylie Cottingham, said while sitting at the family’s dining table with Lane and Shane on the third day of the boy’s suspension.
They brought out the knife that got Lane into trouble. It was returned to Shane after the father-and-son’s meeting with the assistant principal. Engraved on the 2 ¾-inch blade is the word “BUCK,” the name of its manufacturer. The blade folds into the handle, which is slightly curved and has a marble-like pattern.
Lane’s parents agree that their son’s actions called for punishment. He did, they acknowledge, take a weapon to school, albeit unknowingly. But they said detention or in-school suspension would have been more commensurate with his offense, as he had no intent to cause harm. His biggest crime, they said, was forgetfulness.
Shane recalls that Daniel Conrad, West Middle School’s assistant principal who issued Lane’s suspension, sympathized with the family. “He said his hands were completely tied (because of) administrative rules. … He did say that if he could make this better, he would.”
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The Journal twice attempted to interview Conrad. The first time, he referred the reporter to the district superintendent’s office. The second time, he said he was sorry but could not comment.
Mylie said she wishes the School District would allow principals and assistant principals more discretion over student punishments because they’re the people most familiar with the children and their families. “They do their very best to get good people into those positions,” she said, “and then they tie their hands and make them dispense justice that they don’t even believe in? That’s silly.”
The Cottinghams said they hope the existing rules can be changed, at the very least for them to have a way to appeal their son’s suspension. In the Rapid City Area Schools, parents can file a formal appeal only for suspensions that are greater than 10 days.
18 violations, 18 suspensions
Berens said schools have flexibility in deciding punishments. He said school officials consider several factors, including whether the student has a record of a similar offense, and in the case of a weapon violation, if the student injured or threatened anyone. Disciplinary action is then decided from a range of consequences.
“We do understand that there are going to be differences in the things that take place,” Berens said, “and so we want to make sure that we don’t have something that is so rigid that we go over-the-top on the consequence.”
All three RCAS handbooks — there are separate editions for elementary, middle and high schools — specify possession of a weapon as a Class VI offense, along with such infractions as arson, assault and sexual misconduct. Weapons, according to the handbooks, include firearms, pocket knives, bats, sticks or any object used in any way that threatens to inflict bodily injury on another person.
Imitative or toy guns are also cited as weapons in the elementary and middle school handbooks.
So far this school year, the Rapid City schools have had 18 violations for possession of weapons, none of which were firearms. The responses were models of consistency: All violators were suspended, Berens said.
“This is a hunting area,” he said. “People are using knives and guns. That’s part of our world. But we have to help students understand they need to be very diligent about checking.”
The handbooks, which parents are asked to read and sign, stipulate that for a Class VI offense, the common punishments are suspension and referral to members of the police who are stationed in schools as liaison officers. Suspension for elementary students is specified as five to 10 days; for middle and high school students, 90 days.
So middle-school student Lane Cottingham could have had a much more severe punishment if the handbook policy were strictly followed.
Citing a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, Berens wouldn’t answer whether Lane Cottingham’s 10-day suspension was the result of the district’s flexibility in deciding student punishment.
The School Board is responsible for the policies written into the handbooks.
Berens said even though a student may have no intention of using a weapon taken to school, officials fear that it may get into the hands of someone who does.
Meanwhile, Lane Cottingham went back to school last Wednesday.
He still doesn’t like school, but he made clear that if he had his preference, he would spend the day going from class to class instead of being ordered not to.