By Ben Velderman
MOUNT CARMEL, Pa. – On Jan. 10, five-year-old Madison Guarna unwittingly committed a “terroristic threat” while waiting in line for the afternoon school bus.
During a discussion of butterflies, ladybugs and “kitty cats,” the kindergartner told her friends she was going to shoot them and herself with her Hello Kitty bubble gun, which was not in the girl’s possession at the time.
“I’ll shoot you, you shoot me, and we’ll all play together,” said the kindergartner, according to CNN.
A school employee overheard the comment and relayed it to school administrators, who interrogated Guarna the next day for three hours. According to NewsItem.com, Mount Carmel Area Elementary School Principal Susan Nestico determined the kindergartner had made a “terroristic threat” and suspended her for 10 days.
Remarkably, Nestico did not ask local police to frisk or handcuff the girl.
Guarna’s family responded by hiring an attorney who managed to get the suspension reduced to two days and the charge downgraded to a “threat to harm others.” The family also sought an apology from the district and for the suspension to be expunged from Guarna’s permanent record.
Robin Ficker, the family’s attorney, described the girl as “the least terroristic person in Pennsylvania.”
“This is a good-natured little girl,” Ficker told NewsItem.com. “And this shows how hysterical people who work at schools have become since Sandy Hook.”
Ficker’s not alone in noticing the alarming number of school suspensions that have been used to discipline students since last December’s school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
School officials in both “red” and “blue” states are coming down hard on any type of gun-related behavior, real or imagined.
Since the Newtown tragedy, at least 15 students have been suspended from school – or threatened with suspension – for dubious reasons.
Just last week, a seven-year-old Baltimore student was given a two-day suspension for “biting his breakfast pastry into a shape that his teacher thought looked like a gun,” reports The Daily Mail.
Six of those suspensions were given to elementary students who made “gun gestures” with their fingers.
A Pennsylvania fifth-grader was “threatened with arrest after she mistakenly brought a ‘paper gun’ to school,” reports PrisonPlanet.com.
An Arizona high school freshman was suspended for three days for using the image of an AK-47 atop a flag as the desktop background on his school-issued computer. School policy forbids students from “sending or displaying offensive messages or pictures,” including ones that are considered “harassing, threatening, or illegal,” reports WPTV.com.
A 10-year-old Virginia boy was taken into police custody and fingerprinted after he showed “a toy gun with an orange tip” to a friend. He was charged with “brandishing a weapon,” and now he has “a juvenile record and a probation officer,” reports the Washington Post.
And in Colorado, seven-year-old Alex Evans was reportedly suspended from school for “throwing” an imaginary grenade into an imaginary box, which resulted in an imaginary explosion.
The Sandy Hook shootings may be the reason for school leaders’ heightened sensitivity to all things gun-related, but it’s the “zero tolerance” policies put in place by local school boards that often require administrators to hand down these absurd discipline decisions.
The adverse effects of zero tolerance
The concept of “zero tolerance” was first introduced into schools through the federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which requires the one-year expulsion of any student who brings a gun onto school grounds.
University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black tells EAGnews that state lawmakers and school board members grabbed hold of the “zero tolerance” concept and quickly expanded it to cover a variety of high-level offenses.
Before long, the “narrowly defined concept” of zero tolerance was being used to punish students for both major and minor infractions – including some behaviors kids might not be able to recognize as wrong.
“Kids don’t have the mental or emotional capacity to draw these sharp distinctions that are obvious to adults,” Black says.
The incident involving the Hello Kitty bubble guns certainly demonstrates that.
By removing kids from school for borderline transgressions, administrators might actually be sowing the seeds for bigger behavioral problems later, notes Black.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) echoed those concerns in a recent policy statement that highlighted the connection between out-of-school suspensions with juvenile delinquency and school dropout rates.
If a child is suspended from school, but there’s no one at home during the day to supervise the child’s activity, it is more likely he or she “will not pursue a home-based education program” to make up for any missed school work, the AAP notes.
A student who is removed from schools is likely to “engage in more inappropriate behavior” and to “associate with other individuals who will further increase the aforementioned risks,” warns the AAP.
The pediatricians’ group adds that suspensions and expulsions resulting from zero tolerance policies don’t address the “underlying issues affecting the child or the district, such as drug abuse, racial and ethnic tensions, and cultural anomalies associated with violence and bullying.”
Solutions can be found at district, state levels
Black says it might be a violation of a student’s constitutional rights if he or she is removed from school for less than compelling reasons.
“All 50 states guarantee the constitutional right to an education. School leaders need to justify taking away that right,” Black says. “If a student brings a weapon to school, that would qualify as a compelling interest for taking away that right.”
But school leaders need to be careful about removing students from school for lesser offenses.
Black says parents who want to see zero tolerance policies reined in need to talk with their local school board members.
“The quickest, easiest method is through the local school board. They can change their policies in pretty short order,” he says.
Black would like to see parents take their concerns to state lawmakers, so children in all school districts are protected from unfair discipline policies.
“It would be great for state legislators to do more on this issue. It’s better to have a state solution to the problem,” Black says.
Kelly Guarna, mother of the Hello Kitty bubble gun offender, told the Associated Press she plans to push for changes in state law so other kids are spared the trauma of zero tolerance policies gone wrong.
“My daughter had to suffer,” Guarna said. “I don’t want to see other kids suffering.”