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)