Waiting in line for the bus, a Pennsylvania kindergartener tells her pals shes going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty toy that makes soap bubbles. In Maryland, a 6-year-old boy pretends his fingers are a gun during a playground game of cops and robbers. In Massachusetts, a 5-year-old boy attending an after-school program makes a gun out of Legos and points it at other students while simulating the sound of gunfire, as one school official put it.
Kids with active imaginations? Or potential threats to school safety?
Some school officials are taking the latter view, suspending or threatening to suspend small children over behavior their parents consider perfectly normal and age-appropriate even now, with schools in a state of heightened sensitivity after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December.
The extent to which the Newtown, Conn., shooting might influence educators disciplinary decisions is unclear. But parents contend administrators are projecting adult fears onto children who know little about the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators, and who certainly pose no threat to anyone.
Its horrible what theyre doing to these kids, said Kelly Guarna, whose 5-year-old daughter, Madison, was suspended by Mount Carmel Area School District in eastern Pennsylvania last month for making a terroristic threat with the bubble gun. Theyre treating them as mini-adults, making them grow up too fast, and robbing them of their imaginations.
Mary Czajkowski, superintendent of Barnstable Public Schools in Hyannis, Mass., acknowledged that Sandy Hook has teachers and parents on edge. But she defended Hyannis West Elementary Schools warning to a 5-year-old boy who chased his classmates with a gun hed made from plastic building blocks, saying the student didnt listen to the teacher when she told him repeatedly to stop.
The school told his mother if it happened again, hed face a two-week suspension.
Though Newtown introduces a wrinkle to the debate, the slew of recent high-profile suspensions for perceived threats or weapons infractions has renewed old questions about the wisdom of zero tolerance policies.
Conceived as a way to improve school security and maintain consistent discipline and order, zero tolerance was enshrined by a 1994 federal law that required states to mandate a minimum one-year expulsion of any student caught with a firearm on school property. Over the years, many states and school districts expanded zero tolerance to include offenses as varied as fighting, skipping school or arguing with a teacher.
Some experts say theres little evidence that zero tolerance in which certain infractions compel automatic discipline, usually suspension or expulsion makes schools safer, and they contend the policies lead to increased rates of dropouts and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Supporters respond that zero tolerance is a useful and necessary tool for removing disruptive kids from the classroom, and say any problems stem from its misapplication.
The original 1994 federal law, and most state and local zero tolerance policies, give school administrators the flexibility to tailor punishments to fit the circumstances, said school safety expert Kenneth Trump.
Contrary to the myth of zero tolerance, most school board policies provide options and flexibility for administrators. What you see is poor decision-making and poor implementation of the policies, rather than the fact school administrators are handcuffed in terms of their discretion, he said.
Trump said most school officials bend over backward to be fair. But he added theres no question that Sandy Hook weighs heavily.
Its a normal occurrence to have a heightened sensitivity after a high-profile tragedy, but that does not negate the need for common sense, he said.
Maryland father Stephen Grafton said common sense was in short supply in a case involving his 6-year-old son, who he said was suspended from White Marsh Elementary School in Trappe for using his hand as a gun during recess.
Grafton, a staff sergeant in the Armys 82nd Airborne Division, said administrators were criminalizing play. He said he told his son he shouldnt shoot pretend guns because it makes some children upset, but it was a difficult conversation to have because he didnt do anything wrong.
The school lifted the suspension after a day and removed it from his record, Grafton said.
Its a very hypersensitive time, he said. But, still, common sense has to apply for something like this, and it looks like common sense just went completely out the window.
The school principal did not respond to messages.
Zero tolerance traces its philosophical roots to the broken windows theory of policing, which argues that if petty crime is held in check, more serious crime and disorder are prevented. So its no accident that students are often harshly punished for relatively minor misbehavior, said Russell Skiba, a zero-tolerance expert at Indiana Universitys Center for Evaluation and Education Policy.
Weve seen literally thousands of these kinds of episodes of zero tolerance since the early 1990s, said Skiba, who co-authored a 2006 study for the American Psychological Association that concluded zero tolerance has not improved school security.
In the Pennsylvania case, Guarna, a former police officer, said she was summoned to her daughters school last month and told that 5-year-old Madison had talked about shooting her pink bubble gun.
The kindergartener was initially suspended for 10 days and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation, according to documents supplied by Guarnas attorney. The suspension was later reduced to two days, and the incident was reclassified as threat to harm others.
But Guarna wasnt satisfied. The counselor who evaluated Madison indicated she was a typical 5-year-old in temperament and interest. Guarna and her attorney, Robin Ficker, demanded the district expunge Madisons record, apologize and make policy changes.
The parties met recently and Guarna went away happy, though she said she was asked not to reveal the terms of her agreement with the district. The districts attorney declined to comment, citing privacy law.
Guarna said she intends to push for changes in state law.
My daughter had to suffer. I dont want to see other kids suffering, Guarna said.
Mark Terry, a Texas principal and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said most principals he knows are not big supporters of zero tolerance policies because they discount professional judgment.
But when discipline policies do provide leeway, he said: I would hope that principals would, number one, use discretion and common sense. And if you do make a mistake, apologize and say, Hey, that was a boneheaded move. Our sensitivities are just too high, and we need to back off a little bit and take a look at what our real safety plan is.