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Zero tolerance—or zero sense?
Kids' suspensions over imaginary weapons renew debate
Waiting in line for the bus, a Pennsylvania kindergartener tells her pals she’s going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty toy that makes soap bubbles. In Maryland, two 6-year-old boys pretend their fingers are guns during a playground game of cops and robbers. In Massachusetts, a 5-year-old boy attending an after-school program makes a gun out of Legos and points it at other students while “simulating the sound of gunfire,” as one school official put it.
Kids with active imaginations—or potential threats to school safety?
Some school officials are taking the latter view, suspending or threatening to suspend small children over behavior their parents consider perfectly normal and age-appropriate—even now, with schools in a state of heightened sensitivity following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.
The extent to which the Newtown, Conn., shooting might influence educators’ disciplinary decisions is unclear. But parents contend administrators are projecting adult fears onto children who know little about the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators, and who certainly pose no threat to anyone.
“It’s horrible what they’re doing to these kids,” said Kelly Guarna, whose 5-year-old daughter, Madison, was suspended by Mount Carmel Area School District in eastern Pennsylvania last month for making a “terroristic threat” with the bubble gun. “They’re treating them as mini-adults, making them grow up too fast, and robbing them of their imaginations.”
Mary Czajkowski, superintendent of Barnstable Public Schools in Hyannis, Mass., acknowledged that Sandy Hook has teachers and parents on edge. But she defended Hyannis West Elementary School’s warning to a 5-year-old boy who chased his classmates with a gun he’d made from plastic building blocks, saying the student didn’t listen to the teacher when she told him repeatedly to stop.
The school told his mother if it happened again, he’d face a two-week suspension.
“Given the heightened awareness and sensitivity, we must do all that we can to ensure that all students and adults both remain safe and feel safe in schools,” Czajkowski said in a statement. “To dismiss or overlook an incident that results in any member of our school community feeling unsafe or threatened would be irresponsible and negligent.”
The boy’s mother, Sheila Cruz-Cardosa, said school officials are responding irrationally in the wake of Sandy Hook. She said they should be concentrating on “high school kids or kids who are more of a threat, not an innocent 5-year-old who’s playing with Legos.”
Though Newtown introduces a wrinkle to the debate, the slew of recent high-profile suspensions over perceived threats or weapons infractions has renewed old questions about the wisdom of “zero tolerance” policies.