Zero Tolerance

Judge Upholds Suspension of the Pop-Tart Gun Kid

Why did teachers go nuclear in response to poorly timed pastry playacting?


Katherine Mangu-Ward / Reason

Remember the Pop-Tart gun kid? He was 7 years old when he was suspended for chewing his breakfast (not actually a Pop-Tart, as it turned out) into the shape of a weapon and pretending to fire it at his classmates. Now he's 11, and Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth just upheld his suspension

In the end, the case hinged on whether the pastry incident was, in fact, the last straw in a long line of disciplinary problems. The Maryland school says yes; the parents say at the time of the suspension they were told that the two day suspension was a direct result of the deployment of food weaponry and that no other incidents were mentioned.

The story got national attention. The Florida legislature even passed a bill specifically protecting the act of "brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon."

Last year the Maryland State Board of Education backed the school's narrative, finding that: "The student in this case had a long history of behavioral problems that were the subject of progressive intervention by the school. He created a classroom disruption on March 1, 2013, which resulted in a suspension that was justified based on the incident in question and the student's history."

And, at least according to the state review board decision, the kid's behavior log looks pretty clear—this wasn't the first incident where he disrupted the classroom, and his parents knew that. It also looks like the teachers and school staff were doing their best in a tough situation, offering accommodations to the kid and working with him to figure out strategies for success.

The records strongly suggest that this kid was trouble, but also that he was troubled. He was new to the school and joined the class late. In addition to the incidents of aggression, records contain multiple reports of the boy banging his own head on his desk and walls.

So why did the breakfast gun make the teachers go nuclear? On the day of the incident, before anyone at the school realized this would be a national story, the administration went straight to DEFCON 1, sending a letter home with every child in the school which read, in part, "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. In general, please remind them of the importance of making good choices."

But the documentation makes equally clear that pointing chewed up breakfast food at his classmates wasn't the most worrisome thing the kid got up to. The records say that over the span of a few months he left the school grounds during the instructional day, threw a chair, and punched a child in the nose.

Poorly timed pastry-based playacting wasn't his worst infraction, but in the months after Sandy Hook, teachers and administrators decided to treat it like it was. The huge overreaction to the Anne Arundel case was the result of a pattern of bad behavior, too—by school administrators who promote and enforce zero tolerance policies.