Parody is now reality when it comes to guns in public schools. In the name of preventing violence since the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. last December, schools across the country are suspending students for bringing toy guns to school, making gestures that look like guns and in one absurd case in Maryland, suspending a student for biting a toaster pastry into the shape of a gun. I can picture the documentary now: “An Inconvenient Pop-Tart.”
The latest incident involves a sixth grader in Calvert County, Md., who was suspended for making a gun gesture while on a bus heading to school. According to the Washington Post, Carin Read, the mother of the 11-year-old student, filed an appeal of the suspension last week, following a principal denying her request to remove the incident from his school records. This follows an episode in May in another Calvert County school where a five-year-old boy was interrogated for two hours -- without his parents first being notified -- for bringing a toy cap gun to school and suspended for 10 days, although the suspension was later lifted.
In another incident in Prince William County, Va., last February, an 8-year-old boy pointed his finger like a gun at a classmate after his friend pretended to shoot him with a bow and arrow. The interchange followed a lesson on Native American culture and the class learning a song about deer hunting, according to reports. He was suspended for “threatening to harm self or others” – a punishment also reserved for bringing a weapon to school.
Similar incidents have been reported in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
In none of the incidents outlined above did the students who were punished pose a danger to their classmates or teachers. And in the Prince William County case, the student was role playing what he learned in a school lesson, showing the hypocrisy of a school policy that punishes elementary school students for reenacting its own curriculum. Would the school also suspend students for practicing Hamlet or West Side Story off stage?
Like forcing air travelers to remove their shoes in airport security lines, the no-tolerance gun policies make no one safer, but cause a lot of harm. Chief among the casualties are the children charged with crimes they didn’t commit and frequently permanently labeled in their school records as troublemakers. They also teach all children subject to the rules that the law is arbitrary -- a terrible lesson for a generation who will soon be entrusted with upholding and respecting the rule of law as adults. Children understand the concept of fairness well before they start school, so these rules will only grate at their sense of justice -- at the same time indoctrinating them into a world where punishment does not fit the crime or the crime even deserve punishment.
Back to the safety issue. The common thread of the mass shootings in Newtown, Aurora, Colo., Tucson, Ariz., and Virginia Tech is mental illness. Unfortunately, however, as David Kopel wrote in the Wall Street Journal in December, “In the mid-1960s, many of the killings would have been prevented because the severely mentally ill would have been confined and cared for in a state institution. But today, while government at most every level has bloated over the past half-century, mental-health treatment has been decimated.”
Mr. Kopel, research director of the Independence Institute in Colorado and co-author of the law school textbook, "Firearms Law and the Second Amendment," advocates higher funding for mental health and strong civil commitment laws for the mentally ill who are violent.
That makes much more sense than punishing children for being children and perpetuating the myth that zero tolerance policies save lives and prevent violence.