Madison Guarna, 5, was suspended for talking about shooting a Hello Kitty bubble gun.
Associated Press/Photo by Jimmy May
Madison Guarna, 5, was suspended for talking about shooting a Hello Kitty bubble gun.

When zero tolerance makes zero sense


Stories of zero tolerance for bad behavior in public schools always make a good spot for the evening news. A bureaucrats-are-crazy report makes people feel smart, but it’s also frightening. These prosecutions always come out of the blue. Your child could be next. 

A 7-year-old Maryland boy was suspended for brandishing a gun shaped Pop-Tart and allegedly saying “Bang, bang!” A boy on Cape Cod was suspended from pre-school for making what he generously interpreted as a gun out of Legos, and running around making the same “bang” sounds. He was five. A kindergartner caused alarm on a Massachusetts school bus by brandishing a Lego mini-figure gun. It was little bigger than a quarter. An 8-year-old boy in Florida was suspended for using a finger gun while playing with another boy. School policy explicitly prohibits playing with invisible guns.

In most cases, even publicity cannot shame school administrators into reversing their decisions. Yet, when pressed for justification, officials have nothing reasonable to say. “Pointing a gun and making shooting sounds can be uncomfortable for somebody,” protested Mary Czajkowski, superintendent of the Barnstable public schools. To save a theoretical child from possible “discomfort,” she traumatized an actual child. School officials in Hopkinton, Mass., justified suspending a 5-year-old boy for possession of a toy six shooter with an orange tipped barrel, citing their goal of “creating a safe environment for children.” The connection between banning plastic Howdy Doody toys and a safe environment is far from obvious. 

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The incident involving the toaster pastry sidearm created such national embarrassment that Maryland passed the Reasonable School Discipline Act of 2013, which prohibits“suspending or expelling a student who brings to school or possesses on school property a picture of a gun, a computer image of a gun, a facsimile of a gun, or any other object that resembles a gun but serves another purpose … suspending or expelling a student who makes a hand shape or gesture resembling a gun.”

Much of this is a response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings last year. But it was not a second-grader who shot up the school and murdered the tots, but a gaming-soaked, mentally ill adult with access to his mother’s armory. Yet, the boy with the plastic western gun had to meet “with the school’s principal and a police officer, who brought up the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn.” What reason could there be for that other than to blame guns, even the very idea of a gun, rather than specific gunmen, for the Sandy Hook slaughter?

Firearms have no place in school. But the point of this zero tolerance hysteria is not to protect children from any real danger, but to teach them when they are most impressionable that guns themselves—even guns that protect us—are bad. If they succeed, the generation they form will ban gun ownership, despite its constitutional protection. Until then, more than a few surprised little boys will find their innocent boyfulness on the wrong side of public school administrative wrath.

D.C. Innes
D.C. Innes

D.C. is associate professor of politics at The King's College in New York City and co-author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics (Russell Media). Follow D.C. on Twitter @DCInnes1.


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