When is a tool a weapon? Chicago court throws out teacher discipline case.

A veteran Chicago elementary school teacher was suspended for four days after bringing in tools, among them a pocket knife and box cutter, to show his second-graders how they're used.

A veteran teacher at a Chicago elementary school has lost his bid to reverse a four-day suspension without pay because he showed an array of hand tools to his second grade students as part of a math lesson.

Douglas Bartlett displayed pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches, a pocket knife, and a box cutter in his classroom as part of the lesson. He also described and demonstrated how each tool is used by professionals.

Mr. Bartlett, who has been a teacher in Chicago for 17 years, thought he was using physical objects to help his students learn the required course material.

Instead, according to school administrators at Washington Irving Elementary School, Bartlett was guilty of wielding “weapons” in his classroom in violation of various school policies.

School Principal Valeria Bryant cited Bartlett for “possessing, carrying, storing, or using a weapon on the job when not authorized to do so.”

He was also accused of violating school rules, repeatedly engaging in flagrant acts, inattention to duty, and negligently supervising children.

The principal said the teacher had failed to obtain permission to use a box-cutter and a knife in a classroom demonstration, and failed to keep the box-cutter in a location inaccessible to the seven- and eight-year-old students.

Bartlett objected to the punishment. He complained that administrators were enforcing the student handbook definition of “weapon” in his case, even though he was a teacher rather than a student, and even though the items had been used and demonstrated as tools, not weapons.

The teacher appealed the principal’s decision. Administrators upheld the four-day suspension and the inclusion of a notation of the disciplinary action in his employment record.

Barlett filed suit in federal court, asking a judge to declare that school officials had violated his rights by failing to provide him with prior notice that the use of tools like a pocketknife and box-cutters while teaching a class could subject him to disciplinary action.

On Thursday, US District Judge Robert Dow dismissed Bartlett’s case, saying that even though Bartlett clearly disagrees with the administrator’s conclusions and punishment, “his disagreement does not give rise to a viable constitutional claim.”

Judge Dow quoted an earlier court ruling: “It is not the role of the federal courts to set aside decisions of school administrators which the court may view as lacking a basis in wisdom or compassion.”

School administrators are granted wide discretion to carry out their educational mission, the judge said, and should not question that discretion when it does not violate specific constitutional guarantees.

Judge Dow said school officials had provided due process procedures for the teacher to present his side of the case and to appeal the principal’s ruling.

He added: “Even if the use of the box cutter and knife were acceptable practices – or, at least, not barred by a clearly articulated rule – the imposition of a four-day suspension for leaving such tools in a place accessible to second grade students was within the discretion of the school administrators and did not run afoul of [Bartlett’s] constitutional rights.”

The federal complaint was filed and litigated with the help of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties group.

John Whitehead, president of the institute, said Bartlett was a victim of “zealous misapplication of misguided zero tolerance policies.” He called it “zero tolerance policies run amok.”

“In an age where public schools face an unprecedented number of real challenges in maintaining student discipline, and addressing threats of real violence, surely no one benefits from trumped up charges where no actual ‘weapons’ violation has occurred and no threat is posed to any member of the school community,” Mr. Whitehead said in a statement.

“Education truly suffers when school administrators exhibit such poor judgment and common sense,” he said.

The case is Douglas Bartlett v. City of Chicago School District #299 (13cv2862).

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