ATLANTA — The suspension last week of an Ohio fifth-grader who formed his hand into the shape of a gun and pointed his finger “execution-style” at a classmate is fueling the debate over whether school administrators under pressure to keep schools safe are punishing students excessively for imaginative play.
Officials at Devonshire Alternative Elementary School defended their decision to suspend 10-year-old Nathan Entingh, whose hand they designated as a “level 2 lookalike gun.” Gun play at the school had become a problem, they said, and students and parents had been warned against it.
But the three-day suspension is already fodder for a movement in several state legislatures that seeks to force school officials to let up on what many parents and educators see as the overzealous prosecution of “zero tolerance” policies that bypass common sense and hurt children by punishing healthy imaginations and play.
Since the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act mandated “zero tolerance” for students bringing guns to school, school officials have expanded that basic notion to include gun play with toy guns, food shaped into guns, and, now, in Ohio, even hand gestures. Recent school shootings, including the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012, have ratcheted up tensions – and principals’ sensitivities.
At the same time, institutions ranging from large school districts in Buffalo and Oakland to the US Department of Justice are pushing for lesser punishments than suspension and expulsion, especially since research in the last decade has shown that such drastic measures are themselves risk factors for a student’s reduced engagement in school, dropping out, even involvement with the juvenile justice system.
“A kid putting his finger in the shape of a gun and pointing it another kid, that’s inappropriate and there’s no question that something happens as a result of that,” says Russell Skiba, an education professor and discipline expert at Indiana University, at Bloomington. “But there are probably 20 different options that are short of sending a kid home for this type of incident.”
“Instead,” he says, “we’ve seen literally thousands upon thousands of incidents where local school districts have lost common sense and extended the notion of the Gun Free Schools Act of not allowing real firearms on school grounds to levels that most of us would consider fairly ridiculous.”
Around the country, there’s been a steady march of cases where students, sometimes barely kindergarten age, have been punished for toy guns.
In Maryland, a school district punished a student for chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun, and in Virginia, a school district suspended a boy for playing with a toy gun near a bus stop – which happened to be in his own front yard. In Pennsylvania, a 5-year-old was suspended for making “terroristic threats” with a bubble gun.
In January, officials at Frederick Funston Elementary School in Chicago suspended a sixth-grader after he voluntarily handed over a toy gun he had forgotten was in his pocket.
Lawmakers in several states, including Texas, Maryland, and Ohio, have introduced bills to curb such outsized punishments.
“If there’s no real intent, there’s no real threat, no real weapon, no real harm is occurring or going to occur, why in the world are we in a sense abusing our children like this?” Sally Kern, a Republican state legislator from Oklahoma, told Fox News.
Representative Kern recently introduced the Common Sense Zero Tolerance Act to waive punishment for students possessing small toy weapons or using pencils or their fingers to simulate a weapon.
Though Mr. Skiba, the discipline expert, believes that the nation “has turned a corner” and has begun to move away from the “zero tolerance mindset,” the idea is still deeply entrenched in American education.
In a recent survey of Indiana principals, one in three said they believe “zero tolerance” is critical to both school safety and sending disciplinary messages to students, and teachers unions are pushing back against lawmakers who want such punishments stopped.
Other educators, however, suggest that school officials need to exhibit more humility when it comes to discipline mistakes.
“Our sensitivities are just too high and we need to back off a little bit and take a look at what our real safety plan is,” Mark Terry, a Texas principal and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, told the Associated Press last year. “And if we make a mistake, we need to apologize.”
School administrators in Florida had to heed that advice the last time a student was punished for making a hand gun. Last year, the Osceloa School Board in St. Cloud, Fla., rescinded a suspension and apologized for punishing 8-year-old Jordan Bennett who made a gun with his hand in class.