5 Ridiculous School Security Scares

There's keeping kids safe, and then there's just acting crazy.


Kids face plenty of hazards at school, from bullies to boredom. But the chances they'll be killed there are tiny: Homicides on school grounds are not just rare but far more rare than they used to be. Nonetheless, when a terrible crime like the Sandy Hook massacre happens, people have a natural tendency to worry that something similar will hurt the children they love. Sometimes that leads to unobjectionable safety measures, such as a basic review of a school's emergency procedures. And sometimes it just makes people crazy.

Below we'll count down five of the worst school security scares of 2013: four that we know about, and one whose pending presence we can infer. Just as important, you'll read about the policies that have allowed so many over-the-top overreactions to happen.

5. The Fresh Prince. Ambridge, Pennsylvania, February 28, 2013: An eye doctor's receptionist calls Travis Clawson to remind him he has an appointment. The high school senior doesn't answer the phone, so she hears his voice mail message, in which Clawson performs a part of the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. When she gets to the line shooting some b-ball outside of the school, she mishears it as shooting some people outside of the school. And things just escalate from there.

By the day's end, Clawson's school had gone into lockdown and police had arrested the teen. "District Attorney Anthony Berosh said it was determined after listening to the message closely that it did follow the Quincy Jones-penned song and Clawson was released," the Beaver, Pennsylvania, Times reports. Clawson wasn't charged, but the acting police chief "said he urged Clawson's parents to have him change the message." Because you never know when another caller might hear a line from the most innocuous sitcom this side of Saved by the Bell and construe it as a criminal threat.

OK, you say, that story is pretty ludicrous. But you can see why everyone snapped into action after they heard the receptionist's report, and they didn't do any serious harm. Better safe than sorry, right?

Seems to me the cops could have saved everyone some trouble if they'd listened "closely" to the message before descending on Clawson, who was sitting unarmed in the school counselor's office when police arrived to arrest him. But I agree that there are worse ways to behave when a rumor of a security threat is afoot. There is, for example, our next incident…

4. The Umbrella Man. Olympia, Washington, March 19, 2013: A tipster tells the authorities that a man in a ski mask is walking the streets with an assault rifle. Three schools go into lockdown as the Olympia Police Department, the Thurston County Sheriff's Office, the Lewis County Sheriff's Office, and the Washington State Patrol launch a manhunt. After spotting the potential perpetrator on a surveillance video, the cops track him to a neighborhood on the east side of town. The man appears to lift his weapon in the air and point it at a police helicopter.

It's a good thing they didn't fire at him. The alleged rifle turned out to be an umbrella, and the supposed ski mask was a black turtleneck.

Like the Fresh Prince case, this incident rested on a ridiculous misperception. Unlike the Fresh Prince case, there wasn't even a plausible connection between the suspected shooter and a school: just a man ambling around town. Yet that was still enough to trigger three lockdowns in the area's academies, which were well-drilled in how to proceed.

Lockdown drills barely existed two decades ago, even though school violence was more common at the time. They took off after the Columbine killings of 1999 and now are required in several states. This isn't the place to get into the debate over whether those drills should exist at all. But it's clear that they can go overboard, as officials sometimes use the occasion not to react to a phantom threat but to create a phantom of their own. In January, for example, the authorities at Cary-Grove High School in Cary, Illinois, fired starter pistols during a drill, terrifying students. "School officials said they wanted to give students a chance to practice how to respond to a shooting and to know the sound of gunfire," the Chicago Tribune reports.

As Carol Gall of Mental Health America told the Tribune, the result might just be "to instill more fear and anxiety" instead. She added the practice could backfire by "desensitizing people to what happens if there is a real incident."

The line separating the imaginary from the real does tend to break down where school security is concerned. Authorities haven't simply gone into crisis mode when they mistakenly believe a gun is in the area. They have gone into crisis mode over guns that they know damn well aren't real, as our next perp learned…

3. The Hello Kitty Terrorist. January 10, 2013, Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania: A group of kindergartners waits for the school bus. Five-year-old Madison Guarna tells her friends about one of her toys, a Hello Kitty Bubbles Gun—sort of a cross between a water gun and a bubble blower. "I'll shoot you, you shoot me, and we'll all play together," she suggests.

The school deemed this a "terroristic threat" and suspended the girl. Guarna was also subjected to a series of interviews, including an evaluation by a counselor, who concluded that the girl did not display any psychological problems. The principal eventually reduced the suspension from 10 days to two and the charge from a "terroristic threat" to a "threat to harm others," an outcome that is both (a) obviously an improvement and (b) still so stupid you could scream.

The problem here, other than an apparent unfamiliarity with the meaning of the word terrorist, is the rise of "zero tolerance" policies. The criminologist James Alan Fox notes that while "no evidence exists that the zero tolerance approach has made schools any safer," officials like the way it has "eliminated any second-guessing that could potentially follow from discretionary use of sanctions." He adds that the policy may "alleviate professional responsibility and civil liability should an under-response in disciplining a troublemaker lead, subsequently, to serious acts of aggression." In other words, it's less about protecting schools from violence than protecting schools from lawsuits.

The phrase zero tolerance was imported from the drug war, according to a useful study Russell Skiba wrote for the Indiana Education Policy Center. Under the original zero tolerance, he explains, people entering the country with "even trace amounts of drugs" had their property seized and faced charges in federal court. In 1989, school districts in three states brought the concept to student discipline, subjecting kids involved with gangs, drugs, or fighting to harsh automatic penalties. "By 1993," Skiba continues, "zero tolerance policies had been adopted across the country, often broadened to include not only drugs and weapons, but also smoking and school disruption." The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 made the idea a federal mandate, and subsequent amendments "broadened the language of the bill to include any instrument that may be used as a weapon." (Hence a spate of stories in the 1990s about kids who got suspended for possesing pocketknives.) Local districts expanded the offenses even further, frequently with a deliberate policy of "punishing both major and minor disruptions relatively equally." And after Columbine, everything intensified.

By 2013, the long arm of the state could come down on a little girl for telling her friends about a Hello Kitty toy. Can it get worse than that? I'm afraid so…

2. Popped with a Pop-Tart. Brooklyn Park, Maryland, March 1, 2013: Joshua Welch, age 7, is eating a strawberry Pop-Tart at Park Elementary School. He chews it into the shape of a gun—or, at least, into a shape that's gunlike enough for pretending—and he waves it around. According to a teacher on the scene, he says "bang bang." He gets suspended for two days, and a letter goes home to the other children's parents offering counseling to any kids "troubled" by the incident.

Zero tolerance, you see, hasn't just come to cover toys designed to resemble guns; in many schools it covers objects that don't even rise to the level of "toy gun" at all. And no, the Welch case wasn't a uniquely horrible outlier. In the last few months, other children around the country have gotten into trouble for everything from a paper gun to an imaginary grenade. Laugh all you want at the Fresh Prince story, but at least it began with a sincere concern that a real threat to kids' lives was afoot. You can't say that this time: There is no way any normal person could believe a breakfast pastry posed a threat more serious than tooth decay, and yet the boy was punished anyway.

Worse still, there are professional educators who defend such decisions. When USA Today did a story about zero tolerance this month, for example, it included this passage:

Some school leaders say they must overreact rather than dismiss behavior that could lead to tragedies such as Newtown's, according to Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"Parents have to be aware that talking about guns or using your fingers to point like a gun is no longer tolerable or prudent," Domenech said. "Everybody has to adjust. Children are being brutalized and murdered in their classrooms. It's a new world."

Point number one: It is not "a new world." Despite some awful high-profile crimes, school violence has been declining for decades; and there's little evidence of an upward trend in mass shootings in general. Point number two: Even if it were a new world, Domenech is spouting a non sequitur. No child has ever been brutalized or murdered by "using your fingers to point like a gun." To pretend otherwise is to teach kids a very strange lesson about the line between fantasy and reality. It also sullies children's records with suspensions for harmless play and diverts resources from genuine risks.

It's hard to imagine a more destructive attitude for a school to take. Sadly, you don't have to imagine…

1. The Invisible Kids. There's a second dimension to zero-tolerance schooling. It doesn't get as much press attention as stories like the Hello Kitty case or the Pop-Tart saga, since it doesn't lend itself as often to attention-grabbing headlines. But the result is even worse, because it sends students to jail.

Zero tolerance policies designed with guns and drugs in mind have a habit of expanding to cover another broad category of behavior, one that bureaucrats describe with the catch-all term "willful defiance." One result has been a vast increase in the number of suspensions and expulsions. Another has been an increase in the number of students being routed into the criminal justice system. Last year, for example, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the schools of Meridian, Mississippi, noting that students there who have been tagged as troublemakers are "regularly incarcerated" for offenses ranging from "dress code infractions" to "using vulgar language" to "flatulence in class." You read that correctly: In Meridian, farting could land a kid in jail.

This month the Justice Department agreed to drop its suit against the Meridian district in exchange for a commitment to reforms. We'll see how well that works out. In the meantime, alas, Meridian isn't the only place that's been running a school-to-prison pipeline, as voices from Detroit to Dallas have attested. And the rules that are used to punish these students, who are disproportionately poor and nonwhite, arose directly from the zero tolerance wave that began in the 1990s and escalated after Columbine. As schools amp up their security policies again in the wake of Sandy Hook, you can expect to see even more of this down the road. "After Columbine, they passed a slew of 'zero tolerance' laws," the civil rights activist Mariame Kaba wrote right after the Newtown murders. "Guess which schools got the police officers and metal detectors?"

In theory, the current debate over school security pits the advocates of new gun controls against the advocates of arming school personnel. In practice, it's easy to imagine those positions converging on a middle ground that should horrify both principled liberals and principled conservatives: one where the "school resource officers" who increasingly patrol the halls are more likely to be armed, and where the rules they enforce are more likely to entail absurd zero-tolerance decrees. The results will creep in quietly, showing up in anonymous statistics instead of colorful headlines.

The good news is that a movement is emerging to push back against these paranoid policies. Reformers have introduced legislation to stop the worst abuses, from a Maryland bill to end lunacies like the Pop-Tart punishment to a trio of Texas proposals that would roll back the criminalization of student misbehavior. The momentum may favor the other side right now, but some people still understand the difference between keeping kids safe and keeping them prisoner.

NEXT: SCOTUS Stops Cops With Dogs From Searching Homes at Will

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  3. Seems like we just to take a deep breath, buy a gun, and leave everyone alone.

  4. Pardon my cynicism, but I smell a useful tool to make the teachers and administrators workday much easier with the club of suspension, expulsion or incarceration for minor or assinine reasons. Incompetent control freak also comes to mind. Schools would be an awesome place to work if it weren't for the damned kids and all their problems.

  5. Zero tolerance policies also have the nice side effect of conditioning the little urchins to RESPECT (arbitrary and misused) AUTHORITAY!!!!!!

    I know, I know, feature not bug.

  6. "Guarna was also subjected to a series of interviews, including an evaluation by a counselor, who concluded that that girl did not display any psychological problems." Well, check back AFTER the interrogation. Because that sort of Kafkaesque experience can mess with your mind.

  7. In my town, there is a sheriff parked in front of the local high school, about 25' from the front door, every morning. However, there are at least half a dozen entrances around the building, which has 2 floors. If someone goes in the side, up the stairs and starts shooting, it will still be a bloodbath before he can get there, and that's assuming he doesn't stay outside and call for backup. Posting one of these guys at every school would do nothing to prevent in the event of a tragedy like Columbine.

    1. Our local SRO always parks his cruiser in the same place in front of the school, which tells "perps" he's there and deters trouble. I didn't have the heart to ask him what the "perps" would conclude whenever his cruiser isn't there.

  8. It's not about safety.

    It's about FEELING safe.

    Reality, how does it work?

    These statists have forgotten that there IS a difference.

    1. You mean, kinda like 'security theater'?

  9. School Administrators like Zero Tolerance policies because they give them the authority to bully children without the responsibility that could get them in trouble when somebody objects. Frankly I think what needs to be dome is the imposition of a rule or law whereby the parents of a student caught up in this kind of idiocy are given golf clubs and the administrator responsible are given a five second head start.

  10. One of the odd little things I've picked up over the years is knife-throwing. I learned it from a friend way back in 5th grade. We got curious if other things could be thrown that way, and discovered that school scissors were quite effective as throwing weapons. I kept a pair of scissors as part of my school supplies through all grades, K-12.

    If someone had run through my high school shooting a gun, he'd have discovered my fight/flight reflex is pegged rather hard into the fight end of things. And would probably have needed a paramedic in short order.

    What I wonder though, is if a student did fight back, would they get expelled for attacking a teacher?

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  12. And how long will it be before we hear a yell-fest about the purported need for "zero-tolerance" truancy laws? With this kind of overkill, "self-suspension" seems almost rational.

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  14. This article is absurd. You have made me hypertensive now, damn you Reason magazine.

    1. I mean, I agree with Reason here 100%, but this is just fucking insane.

  15. " She and her classmates listened to the fake shots and banging and rattling of doors in the simulation.
    She said the drill felt similar to a tornado or fire drill and better prepared her in the event of a real emergency.
    "I didn't feel scared," Dietzel said. "I feel like more prepared now to know where to go and what to do if it was really happening."
    Keaton May, 15, a freshman, was in Spanish class when the simulation began.
    "The teachers said to stay in the corner and try to keep quiet," said May, adding that the gunshots were not very loud. "It was a track pistol. No one was really scared by it."


    His mother, Joni May, compared it to "intruder drills" she experienced as an elementary school student in Detroit during the 1960s, though they did not have the gunshot noises.

    Seems to me the psychologists, media machine, idiots, and other assorted goofballs don't like it when a single school does a good job taking "the extreme national security risk" seriously.

    Frankly I think the fallout will be banned track pistols, nationwide, soon.

    I'd much prefer the teachers and the eldest grade students go to the shooting range and learn how to handle a gun, then some of them be prepared.

  16. excellent put up, very informative. I wonder why the other specialists of this sector do not realize this. You should proceed your writing. I'm sure, you've a huge readers' base already!

  17. These are all crazy, but no crazier than the gun fetishists who haunt these boards insisting that the next school shooting could be prevented if he armed:
    security guards

    I'm afraid the nuttiness will go over their heads.

    1. Yes, there's lots of craziness and paranoia on all sides with this one.

  18. "Paranoia strikes deep ... into your life it will creep."

  19. "Zero Tolerance" is typically an engineering term indicating that an object must be made to fit precisely the mold or design to which it is attributed.

    So, I guess the real issue here is: What mold are we trying to conform our children to? Who picked it? What is it's purpose? Why is it such a terrible thing to allow people and personalities the leisure of having varying personalities and traits?

    If we would simply pay attention to the vocabulary used, we would know what a policy is going to do, or what it's intended purpose is even if we don't know why or how.

    1. Do you really want to know the answer to these questions?
      I thought not...

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  21. In about 2000, my 3rd-grade son was disciplined (not suspended, but I think that was threatened if there was another incident) at his public school in Pasadena (in a very safe, middle-class neighborhood). His offense was bringing to school a 2-inch plastic replica of a flintlock pistol. I don't think he even played with it, just showed it to friends.

    I had to go to the school, pick up the toy, and was told to give him a lecture on this. It was hard to explain things to him without telling him the people at school were paranoid fools. (I'm sure he did get the message that I thought the whole thing was kind of silly.)

  22. This is my rifle, this is my gun. One is for shooting, the other is for fun.

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  24. This is my rifle, this is http://www.tomsshoesoutletv.com/ my gun. One is for shooting, the other is for fun.

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  27. "As Carol Gall of Mental Health America told the Tribune, the result might just be "to instill more fear and anxiety" instead."


    How many Ph.D's did it take figure this out?

    1. better to ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin...

  28. Unfortunately, you can't fix stupid.

  29. No surprising to me that our children's schools have become the front line for the nanny state. After all this is where indoctrination to the socialist-utopian ideal begins.

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  31. It's becoming obvious that this is not simply a case of scatterbrained 'zero tolerance' nonsense. This is a determined effort on the part of our public indoctrinators to demonize guns to kids. Guns must be seen as evil - as the cause of punishment and humiliation - in order to prepare the next generation for the elimination of these evil tools via confiscation

  32. February 28, 2013: An eye doctor's receptionist calls

  33. everyone some trouble if they'd listened "closely" to the message before descending on

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