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Schools could revisit ‘look-alike’ policy

With a story about Suffolk Public Schools once again in the national news after two 7-year-old boys were suspended from Driver Elementary School for pointing pencils at each other and pretending they were guns, the School Board chairman said he favors examining the so-called “look-alike policy” to see if something needs to change.

Folks from all over the country are responding vehemently, according to Suffolk Public Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw. Administrators had received more than 90 emails and phone calls about the incident by the end of the day Tuesday, and the school had received more than 200 emails and fielded about 75 phone calls per hour Tuesday, Bradshaw added.

“Opinions were very strong and mean-spirited, and often included abusive language and profanity,” Bradshaw wrote in an email.

The second graders were out of school Monday and Tuesday and will return to school Wednesday, Bradshaw said. The incident occurred during class on Friday.

“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,” Bradshaw wrote in an emailed response to questions.

Bradshaw said the boys pointed the pencils at each other and made “machine gun noises.” The consequence for weapons and look-alike weapons can be up to 10 days suspension and an administrative hearing with a division-level discipline coordinator, she said.

“Of course, administrators have discretion at the consequences based on circumstances, student ages and behavior history,” she wrote.

School Board Chairman Michael Debranski said in a phone interview Tuesday that the policy may need to be revisited.

“I think we need to look at our policy,” he said, adding that he could raise the issue at this week’s board meeting. “I want it on the agenda.”

Debranski suggested that “harmless gestures” should be dealt with at the school level.

“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.”

Bradshaw said elementary principals review with students at the beginning of the school year what is considered a look-alike weapon. Driver Elementary students, she added, were told “pencils pointed in a simulated shooting action at another student or a staff member is a violation of the Student Code of Conduct and will have consequences.”

Administrators met with the students’ parents to explain the policy and consequences, she added.

“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 or play-acting,” she wrote.

On Tuesday, the story hit media outlets such as NBC and Fox, the New York Daily News, Washington Post, International Business Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. It was featured on popular blog The Drudge Report, as well as on Gawker.com.

One blog post on the Patriot Action Network gave the story the tongue-in-cheek headline “Virginia elementary school openly allows students to carry weapons into classroom.” The same entry provided contact information for the school and administrative offices, calling upon readers to express their displeasure.

Bradshaw said all but one of the 90 phone calls and emails received by administrators disagreed with the consequences given the two students. The opinions will be shared with Superintendent Deran Whitney, she added.

The kerfuffle comes a little more than a year after the school system was in the national news for proposing a dress-code revision that would have prevented students from wearing clothing “not in keeping with a student’s gender” if it also caused a disruption or distracted others.

The proposed revision was not approved.