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10-year-old Blairsville violinist's expulsion over knife challenged

Rich Cholodofsky
| Thursday, Aug. 27, 2015, 10:51 p.m.

A 10-year-old musician expelled from an exclusive private school for taking a Swiss army knife to a concert to “trim broken hairs” from her violin bow is at the center of a legal battle.

The parents of Abbigail Cunkelman of Blairsville have asked a Westmoreland County judge to reverse their daughter's expulsion from the Valley School of Ligonier, where officials found she had a knife with a 1 14-inch blade during a May orchestra concert.

They said their daughter was using the knife to cut loose or frayed hairs from the strands that make up a violin bow.

Brian and Jennifer Cunkelman say they were surprised in July when Valley School officials notified them by letter that Abbigail had been dismissed from the school because she violated the state's Safe Schools Act. It permits districts to expel students who bring weapons onto school property.

The Cunkelmans declined to comment when contacted Thursday afternoon.

In their court filing, the Cunkelmans said the knife was returned to the girl and, although they received a call from an administrator, Abbigail was permitted to finish the school year without incident, according to court papers.

The fallout from the girl's expulsion spread when the Cunkelmans attempted to enroll their daughter in the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District, where on Wednesday — the first day of classes — her admission was questioned, according to court records.

Her parents would not disclose if she was denied admission. Clair Wood, head of school for the Valley School, and Blairsville-Saltsburg Superintendent Tammy Whitfield declined to comment about Abbigail.

Speaking generally, Whitfield said each enrollment is evaluated on an individual basis. She said the district follows the requirements under the Safe Schools Act.

“If a student is expelled because of a weapon or drugs being brought on to school property, we're obligated to follow the same expulsion that was carried out by the previous district,” Whitfield said.

Court papers indicate the family was told by Blairsville-Saltsburg officials that the Valley School had notified them of Abbigail's expulsion.

The Cunkelmans' court filing says the Valley School's decision to report the expulsion could cause the family and their daughter to suffer a “defamatory stigma.”

The Safe Schools Act paves the way for districts to expel students for up to a year for bringing weapons onto school property.

The law, though, is vague and not applied correctly in many instances, said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, based in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

“We have concerns about the use of zero-tolerance laws because it doesn't allow for common sense or discretion,” Klehr said.

School districts should be able to decide whether an object was brought into school to cause harm or if it was for a more benign reason such as to maintain the strings of a violin bow, she said.

The law says that expelled students can be accepted by other school districts. Those students could be assigned to an alternate educational program such as a school for disruptive students, Klehr said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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