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gun phobia gone nuts

Gun gesture leads to suspension for Calvert

sixth-grader; county rethinks weapons policy

By Donna St. George

A sixth-grader in Calvert County was suspended for forming his hand into a gun on his bus ride to school, an incident that adds to a string of recent high-profile cases involving punishments for children who gesture with imaginary weapons.

Carin Read, mother of the 11-year-old student at Mill Creek Middle School in Lusby, filed an appeal of the suspension late last week, after a principal denied her request to remove the alleged infraction from her son’s school records.

The boy had already served a day-long in-school suspension, and Read argued that he should not have a permanent record over the matter. His disciplinary referral alleged that he pretended to shoot another student on the bus.

“There was no threat,” Read said, describing her son as an honor student who has never been in trouble at school. “He’s been punished enough.”

A Calvert schools spokeswoman, Gail Bennett, said she could not comment on the case because student discipline matters are protected by confidentiality laws. The Washington Post generally does not identify minors accused of disciplinary infractions.

The case is one in a growing number involving students suspended from school for pointing their fingers like guns, talking about guns and carrying toy guns. In Anne Arundel County, a 7-year-old boy was suspended after chewing his Pop-Tart-like breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun. In both Montgomery and Prince William counties, young boys were suspended for pretending to shoot with their fingers.

While such cases in the past year have come amid heightened sensitivities after December’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, the issue has hit a tipping point in the southern Maryland schools of Calvert County.

As last school year ended, a kindergartner was suspended for 10 days for bringing his cowboy-style cap gun on a school bus. The punishment was cut to three days and ultimately cleared from the boy’s record, but it touched off concern about outsized consequences for childish mistakes.

In August, school board members Joseph R. Chenelly and Kelly D. McConkey requested a review of the Calvert weapons policy. Chenelly said the policy was not billed as a zero-tolerance policy but appeared to be in practice.

Chenelly wants to revise the policy to bring such factors as intent and mental capacity into decision-making about school consequences. He also has urged that parents receive notification as soon as possible — perhaps within 15 minutes — when such allegations are made.

He said a dozen families have told him about suspensions since late May that fell under the weapons policy but that parents said did not involve actual threats.

In one case, a middle-schooler reading a hunting and fishing magazine during a free period was suspended because the back-page advertisement showed a fishing knife, he said. In another case, he said, a middle-schooler was suspended for saying he wished he had a gun to protect everyone after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The Calvert school system’s staff presented a proposal Thursday to revise Calvert’s policy on look-alike weapons to be more flexible. The public has 30 days to weigh in. The school board takes it up Oct. 10.

Board member Tracy H. McGuire said she was satisfied with the new policy proposed by staff, which she said offers more leeway in decision-making so that administrators have “a different pathway when there is reason to think the student meant no harm.” She said the school system does not want weapons or look-alikes in schools, but “there should be some latitude” in considering cases, especially when they involve younger children.

To Chenelly, the staff-proposed changes don’t go far enough. School staff did not support his ideas for using intent and mental capacity as considerations.

At the board meeting, Kimberly Roof, executive director of administration for Calvert schools, said that a group of school leaders and others had met to discuss such ideas but that they did not support using intent as a factor in considering cases. That, she said, would be “putting our principals in a very, very precarious situation if they were trying to figure out what someone’s intent might be. It’s really about the legality of the situation that they are dealing with at the time, and what is the threat that someone is perceiving to themselves.”

Chenelly said he looks forward to hearing from the community. He said he sees the goal as helping “principals understand that we see these incidents as gray areas, not black and white, and treat each incident uniquely.”

For Read, the mother of the sixth-grader who made the hand gesture, such changes would be welcome. She said she was informed of the incident a day after her 11-year-old had been interviewed and written a statement.

When she later requested that his records be expunged, she said the principal offered to rewrite her son’s disciplinary referral to remove the word “gun.” But she said it still deemed his offense as being in the same category as possession of weapons or look-alikes.

“He’s being lumped in with students that do more serious offenses,” Read said. She said policies should be changed to “make these decisions on a common-sense, case-by-case basis.” She added: “It’s not just my student.”