By Oliver Lazenby
Sikh students at Blaine schools are allowed to carry ceremonial Sikh knives, called kirpans, school officials told parents at a November 28 school board meeting. A handful of parents had attended the meeting to express concerns about the religious symbol, which is allowed in schools across the country.
The issue came up after some students at Blaine Primary School noticed another student carrying a kirpan, said school district superintendent Ron Spanjer.
A kirpan can be a variety of sheathed knife-like items, from long daggers to symbolic replicas that cannot be removed from their sheaths. It is one of five ceremonial items Sikhs – followers of a monotheistic religion originating in the Punjab region of Asia – must carry at all times.
The kirpan that raised the issue had dull edges and is about 3 inches long, said school district superintendent Ron Spanjer. It’s worn under a student’s clothing.
“We have affirmed that the edges on this religious symbol are not sharp and we don’t consider this to be a knife. It’s a replica of a knife,” he said. “We have reinforced with the family that it stays under the clothing, that it’s secure in the sheath, that it’s not sharp, and the family has been very supportive of the expectations we’ve communicated.”
In a November 28 letter, the school district’s lawyers advised the board to accommodate Sikhs who want to carry kirpans, citing federal and state law. The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which covers Washington and much of the American West, ordered a school in Livingston, California, to lift its ban on kirpans in 1995.
The court ruling did place certain restrictions on kirpans, including that they have a dull blade, be limited in length, be secured in the sheath, and be worn on a strap under clothing.
Still, some parents are concerned.
“That seems a little bothersome for some of the parents who don’t necessarily want knives in school,” said Mylissa Bode, a Blaine primary school parent, in a phone interview. “There are some other kids at school who may be a bit less mature, and if they were to get a hold of those it could be a problem.”
Bode works at a law firm and is familiar with the legal precedents but thinks more restrictions could be placed on kirpans, she said.
“Having a dull edge, it doesn’t really make a difference,” Bode said. “If my daughter were to have a butter knife, that would be an issue. So we’re hoping the district can come up with some kind of concession.”
Parents at the meeting also questioned how other kids would perceive the symbol and their own safety. One parent thought it would make other kids more likely to bring pocketknives to school.
“While the kirpan is perceived as a knife, it cannot be used as a knife,” Spanjer replied. “You can’t cut someone with it. A pocketknife can be used to cut things and it is not a religious symbol. That’s really the context.
“I’m not offering these thoughts because I intend to change your mind or feelings about this particular item in your child’s classroom but I just want to reassure parents that we’re doing everything possible to ensure the safety of children in our schools.”