In recent weeks there have been two instances of children bringing guns or gun replicas to Fairfield County Elementary Schools. Since the school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary school, a renewed focus has been placed nationwide on guns and gun violence, particularly as it relates to children being exposed to it.
In some cases, it seems as if common sense has been discarded in favor of blanket, zero tolerance policies that keep children out of school in a misguided approach to keeping children safe. There have been Associated Press reports of a 5-year-old in Pennsylvania who was suspended for making a threat with a bubble gun. A 5-year-old in Massachusetts was threatened with suspension for making a gun from Legos and chasing his classmates. Two 6-year-olds in Maryland were suspended after using their fingers as guns while playing on the playground. A Sumter kindergartner was suspended for a month for bringing a toy gun to school, but the suspension was overturned after her parents petitioned the school board and the child was allowed to attend school again.
Those examples have rekindled the debate about the usefulness of zero tolerance policies and school discipline. Superintendent J.R. Green and the district administration used judgement and common sense when determining appropriate actions after a 4-year-old child brought a pink gun to a local elementary school.
They considered the child’s age and intent and then determined a punishment that was for a Level 1, rather than a Level 3, offense. Then last week, a 12-year-old child brought a loaded BB gun to an elementary school. The code of conduct classified that incident as a serious Level 3 violation since a weapon on school grounds puts student safety at risk.
Zero tolerance policies kicked in and the student is being addressed per the district discipline policy. Even that policy places the student’s consequences in the hands of a review board which allows the district the flexibility to handle cases on a case-by-case basis, something legislators included in a federal law, the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 (Pub. L. 103-382, Title I, § 101, October 20, 1994, 198 Stat. 3907).
That act, while it required states to put into place polices whereby students would be barred from school for at least a year if they were caught on campus with a weapon, also contained a provision that allowed school superintendents to review situations case by case and respond in kind.
If blanket overreaction and excess punishment were to become the norm for infractions like a child bringing a toy to school, what impact will that have on this generation of students when they move into a world and workforce that contain shades of gray and require critical thinking to ensure success? Would that life experience do these children harm as they grew into adulthood? Those kinds of questions are part of a zero tolerance debate that exceeds the scope of this column.
It is reassuring to know that the school policies in Fairfield County are being used as they were intended and that our educators have recently had the courage to make discipline judgement calls that take into account common sense.