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Zero tolerance

Published 9:48pm Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Sometimes it takes a disaster to convince people of the need for change. Following the public relations disaster in the Suffolk Public School system this week, it should be clear to everyone that it’s time for a change to the silly, pointless zero-tolerance policy the system has regarding “lookalike weapons.”

Two 7-year-old boys were suspended for two days following a classroom incident in which they pointed pencils at each other and made “gun sounds.” The suspensions were short because of the boys’ age, their immediate compliance with a teacher’s request that they stop and their complete lack of threatening behavior toward any other student or teacher. But they never should have been suspended at all.

In these days of unease as a result of school shootings and public bombings, it is understandable that school administrators want to do everything they can to protect the youngsters in their charge. But there is a real question as to whether zero-tolerance policies do anything to protect children.

If the boys had threatened someone else, if they had ignored their teacher’s instructions, if they had a history of anti-social behavior or if they had been playing with something that actually appeared to be a weapon, the punishment might have fit the supposed crime, and there might have been an actual teaching opportunity presented by their suspensions.

Instead, the two 7-year-olds were likely flummoxed by the situation. So, too, for most of the adults that have heard about it — at least for those who are not part of the school system’s administration.

The Internet has been rife this week with the collective disdain of thinking adults who realize the foolishness of the outcome of this incident. But the tone-deaf comments of a school spokesperson regarding the suspensions suggest a complete lack of appreciation by Suffolk Public Schools for common sense. “This action is considered a violation of our 15-year-old zero-tolerance weapons policy, because pointing pencils in a gun-like fashion at someone else is considered a threat or intimidation,” Bethanne Bradshaw wrote in an emailed response to questions.

Fortunately, School Board Chairman Mike Debranski seems to have a better grasp on the reality of little boys being little boys. “What I want to do is see if we give any latitude to the building principals in making decisions,” he said. “I think it’s worth looking at. It’s an issue we need to deal with more sensitively when it’s younger kids, especially real young kids that don’t know better.”

The School Board is expected to revisit its zero-tolerance policy during tonight’s meeting. Any update to the school system’s weapons policy should be rooted in a real effort to counteract real threats to safety.

Pencils are not guns. Fingers are not guns. Pictures are not guns. If Suffolk schools are going to have zero-tolerance policies, administrators should start with zero tolerance for silly, inane rules that do nothing to protect children.

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