Suspension Of Pencil ‘Weapon’ Wielding Boy Makes Me Want To Put Driver Elementary School In Time-Out

shutterstock_68311354I’m not going to lie, I don’t understand gun culture. I grew up in a borough of New York City and have lived here most of my life. I didn’t know anyone who had guns and I’ve never held one. I am horrified by the events in Newtown, Connecticut, as I think most human beings are.  In my ideal world nothing like the shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary would ever happen again, and while we are at it, neither would accidents like the recent death of a two-year-old at the hands of her five-year-old brother. My admitted ignorance of gun culture, however, does not negate my common sense.

Driver Elementary School wants to keep danger out — but they also need to keep common sense in too. The Virginia school’s zero tolerance policy on weapons led to the suspension of seven-year-old Christopher Marshall from the second grade for using a pencil to “shoot” his classmate during a game of make-believe.  As I read the story, I slapped my forehead and shook my head in disbelief.

Bethanne Bradshaw, the school’s spokesperson defended the suspension.

It’s an effort to try to get kids not to bring any form of violence into the classroom, even if it’s violent play.

Mind you the boy wasn’t using the pencil to poke, jab or actually hurt his friend. Instead, the description of the scene says the little boy was shooting his target classmate from a distance  – with a writing device. I’m not sure how exactly this qualifies as dangerous.

Violent play makes me think of bullying or rough-housing — something that suggests these children are learning to solve their problems with violence. That, I would agree, is cause for concern. But this situation sounds like normal role playing. Kids still need to investigate “good guys” and “bad guys.” Games like cops and robbers or superheros are normal and perfectly healthy in young children.

I empathize with parents and school officials wanting to take action to prevent their own Sandy Hook tragedy. I applaud those schools that want to teach their students that violence against one another is not a solution for their problems. But zero tolerance for anything often results in situations that appear ridiculous, like Bradshaw’s defense of the pencil as a weapon:

[T]he school has a zero-tolerance policy for weapons. She thinks that a pencil can be considered a weapon if someone makes gun noises while pointing the weapon at another person in a threatening way.

This just makes me sad. I feel for the child — who by all accounts stopped his playing as soon as the teacher told him to and has since said he will never do it again — being ostracized and suspended from school for pretending with a pencil.

I understand it is hard to know where to draw the line. In our house, we don’t allow toy guns (especially ones that look like these), but my four-year-old regularly uses his own (non-gun) toys to simulate shooting the bad guys and I don’t bat an eye. Not only is there value in role-playing, but there I encourage his imagination to go wild in his make-believe play. A zero tolerance policy like this school’s denies those opportunities to its young students.

I can imagine it is tough being a school administrator in a post-Sandy Hook world. People want change, but there is no consensus on what would help. Unfortunately, results like this only deter efforts to make meaningful change. No matter what the initiative to make our kids safer, common sense decision making must be part of the equation — and that seems absent from this boy’s punishment at Driver Elementary.

(photo: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock)

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  • Lastango

    While I agree with you about the stupidity of such policies, when we focus on the lack of common sense we may be barking up the wrong tree. Instead, these absurdities may at bottom be manifestations of the multifaceted politicization of education, and the rise of what we might call the Education Establishment. Common sense, or the lack of it, doesn’t produce these outcomes. Self-interest does, now embodied in powerful, structured organizational networks and concealed behind rhetoric about concern for safety and children.

    • Carinn Jade

      Very interesting perspective. I expected that by adding common sense, the result would have been different as in “Marshall wasn’t actually engaging in violent play” so that the teacher didn’t report it or the principal spoke to the boy without actually giving the suspension. What you reveal sounds like something far weightier and widespread.

  • Alyson

    I have mixed feelings about this. As a teacher, I enforce a lot of rules in the classroom for the safety and happiness of my students. Some things we just don’t allow in the classroom because it’s not the environment for them. When my students come to school, they come to learn (which includes engaging in developmentally appropriate dramatic play), not to pretend to shoot people. I’m SURE that when they go home they all play guns (so they aren’t really being denied opportunities to work out these scenarios through play), but it’s a school rule that we do not shoot our friends in our classroom, even when it’s just pretend. I imagine that this was a rule in the classroom, and that it was posted and reinforced frequently. It’s also possible that since the child had an interest in military play this was not the his first offense of this nature. What if the child he was ‘shooting’ at was scared or upset? What if the other child didn’t want to play and was being antagonized? Or what if a child observing the interaction was upset by it, especially considering recent events? The child clearly wasn’t trying to hurt anyone, but I’m not sure that was the point here. The administration is trying to ensure that the school is a holding environment for all children, and I appreciate that.

    With that said, however, a two day suspension does seem over the top and unnecessary. There were definitely other ways to address the issue with the child. I think there are other ways to show zero-tolerance for such behavior without removing a child from the classroom and preventing them from being able to learn for two whole days. It could even be made into a teachable moment! I just wanted to express that while the punishment is too harsh, this post made it sound like it was all a joke, and I just don’t think that was the case.

    • Carinn Jade

      I’m not sure I thought it was a joke, but it did sound like a huge overreaction and a punishment that was disproportionate to the offense. But you have reframed it in a way that makes me think long and hard about whether that is the case. You should pass some tips along to that school spokeswoman!!

  • Anna

    What makes us think this was the first thing this kid did wrong all year? It may well be his teachers and the administrators are tired of him by this time of year and he provided the incident they needed to give him a boot for a few days. In May, in my building, the kids act insane, and there’s a lot of in and out of school suspensions. By May, the kid has wracked up 15 warnings and calls home and it’s just time for them to get a real punishment for once instead of yet another, “no no, dear.” It’s all fields trips and fun, and if you’re going to be a brat….we don’t need you there. And I guarantee if you ask any of their parents (like they did in the original article) the parent will act just as stunned that they’ve been asked to take them home this time around as this kid’s parents did. What? Not another chance for my snowflake? But he was “just playing!”