Fifth Grader Suspended for Aiming Imaginary Weapon in Class

Beth Greenfield, Shine Staff

Disciplining students for having weapons in school is a no-brainer. But for having imaginary ones? Makes sense to at least one principal, in Pennsylvania, who suspended 10-year-old Johnny Jones for “shooting” an imaginary bow-and-arrow at a classmate. But now the boy’s parents are firing back with the aid of the Rutherford Institute, a national civil rights group, seeking to have his record expunged.

More on Shine: Two Boys Suspended for Pointing Pencils Like Guns

“He’s got a weapons charge — it’s crazy,” notes John Whitehead, lead attorney and founder of the Virginia-based organization, which sent a letter to South Eastern School District Superintendent Rona Kaufmann on Dec. 4. The letter calls the school’s action “ludicrous,” asking Kaufmann to remove the charge from Johnny’s permanent record and rescind his one-day suspension; it gives the school until Dec.13 to respond.

The fifth grader was disciplined at South Eastern Middle School-West, in Fawn Grove, in October, where Principal Jon Horton categorized Johnny’s actions as threatening: playfully using his hands to draw the bowstring on an imaginary bow to “shoot” an arrow at his friend, who had pretended to shoot him with a pencil, according to Whitehead. Horton then suspended both boys for violating the school’s code of conduct, which bans weapons, including any “replica” or “look-alike.” (The parents of the second boy, Whitehead explains, are not fighting the school.)

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The South Eastern School District was closed due to inclement weather on Tuesday, and Superintendent Rona Kaufmann did not respond to an email seeking comment from Yahoo Shine. Johnny’s mother Beverly Jones declined, through Whitehead, to comment.

Whitehead says he’s been defending students in school incidents involving fake and imagined weapons since the 1990s, but that “after Columbine [shootings] is when we really saw it take off.” Schools have “ramped up” fighting these “crimes of the imagination,” he notes, particularly post-Sandy Hook, adding that the latest trend is to call the police in for backup, even in the case of young kids using their fingers as guns on the playground.

“All a teacher has to say is, ‘That’s not appropriate behavior,’” Whitehead says, but instead personnel are relying on zero-tolerance policies for discipline, which can be “harmful.” What he fears, he explains, is that “we’re teaching these kids to put their heads down and to be afraid of authority all the time.”

Earlier this year, a Maryland 7-year-old was suspended for nibbling his Pop-Tart into the shape of a pistol; his family appealed to the school to have his record wiped clean, but the school stood firm, denying the request. Other students, all age 7 and under, have been recently suspended for talking about shooting a Hello Kitty bubble gun, firing at each other with fingers during recess, and pointing pencils as if they were machine guns.

Though widely criticized for being heavy-handed, schools may be coming from a place of wanting to prevent trauma or violence, notes Dr. Dan Kindlon, a child psychology professor at Harvard University, who spoke with Fox News on the issue recently. “It would seem to be an overreaction to discipline a 6-year-old for pretending his finger is a gun barrel, but I am sure that the specter of Sandy Hook, Columbine, etc., haunts the dreams of many school administrators,” he says.

But meanwhile, Whitehead fears, “when we’re focusing on the Johnny Joneses, the kid with the real gun is walking through the door.”

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