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February 19, 2013

Suspensions renew zero tolerance debate

Waiting in line for the bus, a Pennsylvania kindergartener tells her pals she’s 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 following 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.

“It’s horrible what they’re 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. “They’re 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 School’s warning to a 5-year-old boy who chased his classmates with a gun he’d made from plastic building blocks, saying the student didn’t listen to the teacher when she told him repeatedly to stop.

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