Zero Tolerance

Hearing Examiner: School Was Right to Suspend Little Boy Who Chewed Pop-Tart Into Shape of Gun

School policies prohibit "lookalike weapons" as well as real ones, even though no one was ever shot to death by a pastry.

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Pop-Tart
Scott Ehardt / Wikimedia Commons

Last year, the suspension of a seven-year-old boy from an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, public school generated significant media attention. The boy's crime? He chewed a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun and reportedly made shooting gestures at other students.

The incident happened in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, and many people said administrators overreacted out of paranoid sensitivity to gun violence. School policies prohibit "lookalike weapons" as well as real ones, even though no one was ever shot to death by a pastry.

Ever since his suspension, school administrators have tried to spin the harsh disciplinary measures as a last response to a string of inappropriate behavior. Earlier this week, a hearing examiner agreed with the school that the boy's suspension was justified on those grounds. According to The Washington Post:

In a 30-page opinion, hearing examiner Andrew W. Nussbaum supported a principal's assertion that the suspension was based on a history of problems, not the pastry episode. "The evidence is clear that suspension is used as a last resort," Nussbaum wrote.

… In Anne Arundel, the boy's disciplinary referral used the word "gun" four times, asserting that the child "chewed his cereal bar into the shape of a gun" and aimed it at other children. The document quoted the boy as yelling, "Look, I made a gun!" It cited classroom disruption as the primary reason for the suspension, and an administrator noted several previous incidents of disruptive behavior near the bottom of the form.

In Nussbaum's opinion, dated June 26, he rejected arguments from the boy's family that the school overreacted and that the suspension arose from a bias against guns. The father said he was told the day that the boy was suspended that it was for playing as if he had a gun, not for ongoing problems.

… Robin Ficker, an attorney for the family, said the parents are hoping for the best when the school board makes its decision. He argued that the school system tried to change the issue "into a long-term behavior problem after the fact."

It's difficult to believe that the suspension wasn't really about the kid's pretend gun antics, however. Anne Arundel administrators sent a letter home to parents in response to the Pop-Tart incident that clearly indicates they were freaked out about it:

I am writing to let you know about an incident that occurred this morning in one of our classrooms and encourage you to discuss this matter with your child in a manner you deem most appropriate.  During breakfast this morning, one of our students used food to make inappropriate gestures that disrupted the class. While no physical threats were made and no one was harmed, the student had to be removed from the classroom. 

If your children express that they are troubled by today's incident, please talk with them and help them share their feelings. Our school counselor is available to meet with any students who have the need to do so next week. 

Administrators suspended the boy for two days and marked his personal record. His official school files now reference the word "gun" four times. His parents have asked administrators to expunge the file; they have refused.

It's important to remember that there is a seven-year-old boy at the fruit-filled center of this case study in anti-gun hysteria and heavy-handedness. I have a hard time believing that anyone has suffered as a result of his actions other than himself.

Read more from Reason on illogical zero tolerance school policies here.