Oct. 22, 2007 — -- A South Carolina high school freshman has been expelled from school for possession of a butter knife.
Amber Dauge was by all accounts a good student at Goose Creek High School. She had joined the Junior ROTC program and was a member of the school's chorus. But she says officials have overreacted to an honest mistake.
"I know I made a really stupid decision, but I don't think I should be expelled for it," Amber told WCIV-TV, the ABC affiliate in Charleston, which first broke the story.
"She was at home making toast and she looked up, saw the clock, and said, "Oh I'm going to be late," her stepfather, Steven Heinz, explained to ABC News' Law & Justice Unit.
"She ran out the door and locked herself out with the butter knife still in her hand."
"Now, she could have rang the doorbell and got us up and left the butter knife at home," Heinz said.
"And she could have dropped the knife on the porch, I guess. And I guess she could have, when she got to school, walked in and turned it in [school officials] … but she left it in her locker and forgot about it."
Heinz said Amber opened her locker a week later, and the butter knife fell out. A fellow student made a wisecrack about the knife that was overheard by a teacher, who reported it to school officials, according to Heinz.
Amber was immediately suspended for five days, pending an expulsion hearing that officials say was mandatory under by the school's "zero tolerance" policy toward weapons or potential weapons.
"To a certain extent, we were understanding when they called us down and said 'We have to put her on this five-day suspension,'" Heinz said. "At first I thought it was just a scare tactic. 'They want to make an impression' is what I was thinking."
Amber "went into the other room and started crying" when the school contacted her parents to notify them of the suspension and impending expulsion hearing, her stepfather said.
Heinz and his wife, Kristi, Amber's mother, took time off work to attend the expulsion hearing on Oct. 18. On one side of the table was Heinz, his wife and Amber. On the other, Heinz said, were two assistant principals and a Berkeley County Schools District hearing officer.
At the hearing, administrators "read through all the stuff and every one of her teachers had good things to say about her," Heinz said.
Teachers described Amber as "a very sweet girl" who is "pleasant" and "respectful," according to documents provided to ABC News by her family.
Asked whether she ever had any discipline problems at school or had a criminal record, Heinz said that she did not.
"She's never a problem," he said. "She's not one of those kids who you have to struggle with to get out of bed and to school. She gets up before we do. She likes school."
Amber's parents assumed that once they explained the situation at the hearing, the matter would be resolved and Amber reinstated as a student, and she would not be expelled, Heinz said.
But "three hours after the hearing, we received a phone call from an assistant principal saying that Amber had been expelled."
Then, the next morning, "we received a letter in the mail, postmarked the 18th [of October] saying that Amber had been expelled," Heinz said. "Now I guess it's possible that someone rushed down to the post office [after the hearing] and got the letter postmarked that same day, but I kind of have the feeling this was a foregone conclusion, that that letter was written before we even walked into the expulsion hearing."
Pam Bailey, spokeswoman for the Berkeley County schools, said that officials had followed proper protocol and that a county hearing officer had affirmed the school's expulsion recommendation for Amber.
"It's not what we would consider to be a traditional butter knife," Bailey told ABC News. "Even though it's blunt on the end, it does have a serrated edge."
Bailey acknowledged Amber's clean disciplinary record — beyond a minor uniform infraction. "Despite the fact that the student was an exceptional student, this has nothing to do with how good she was in the classroom. She was in possession of a knife."
Bailey told ABC News school officials had no reason to believe Amber had any nefarious or violent intent in transporting the butter spreader onto school property.
"Certainly, if it was my child, I would have a different perspective," she said. "But if you're a school administrator, your perspective has to be broader. You have to consider the safety of the entire student population."
But Heinz said the reviews his stepdaughter received from teachers was exemplary.
He said they are considering their options, including the option to appeal the decision to the county. They have yet to pursue any legal action, and they are reluctant to do so, Heinz said.
"We have not researched all our options,'' he said. "We hope that there will be some kind of rational thought."
In the meantime, Amber is, academically speaking, benched for the season.
"They have the option of reinstating her next fall," a frustrated Heinz said, "if they decide they want to."