Hello Kitty 'terrorist,' et. al: Is zero tolerance suspensions for kids right?

Zero tolerance suspensions of kids is an overreaction in cases like the kindergarten Hello Kitty 'terrorist' who wanted to "shoot" people with bubbles or 6-year-olds pretending to shoot with their fingers. It's adults crying wolf.

Associated Press
Zero tolerance policies resulted in the suspension of Kelly Guarna's 5-year-old daughter Madison, pictured, in Pennsylvania. The kindergartener was suspended from school for making a "terroristic threat" last month after her mother said she talked about shooting a Hello Kitty bubble gun.

As a parent I have zero tolerance for realistic threats to my child's safety in school. However, I am not convinced that the criminalization of elementary school children and a new form of student shaming by branding kids over their imaginations is where we truly need to be headed right now. I am not getting rid of the Woody doll from Toy Story because it says, “Reach for the sky” when you pull the string either.

Over the past 19 years I have run a totally toy-gun-free, parentally-guided home where I limited violent video games. However, despite the hair-trigger on the panic button, I am not taking my son Quin, 9, who has Aspergers Syndrome (sadly an alleged part of the profile of the Sandy Hook Elementary School killer) off his favorite video game site that his teachers recommend for high-achievers, called Math Blasters.

Yup, he's making the world safe for math by “blasting” aliens with his killer calculations. However, I am prepping for the day when he points his invisible math laser at another kid and tells them, “I'm going to subtract you!” and ends up suspended for “terroristic threats.”

My concern stems from a string of recent news reports in which children much younger than my son have been suspended and socially branded via schools' zero tolerance gun and weapon policies that are on such a hair-trigger that we are perhaps beginning to do more harm than good by crying wolf and painting kids with the “bad kid” brush when all they really need is a little guidance.

According to The Associated Press, a Pennsylvania kindergartener waiting for the bus told friends she was going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty toy that makes soap bubbles and was suspended for making “terroristic threats.”

Meanwhile, in Maryland, the AP also reported, two 6-year-old boys pretended their fingers were guns “during a playground game of cops and robbers, and a 5-year-old boy at an after-school program made a gun out of Legos” and pointed while making realistic shooting sounds, I'm guessing, “BANG! Rata-tata-tat-ta!”

Let's look at this from a point of view where we aren't freaking out every time someone slams a car door in the school parking lot too hard (thinking it's a gunshot) and remind everyone that Hello Kitty bubble puffers don't kill kids, kids with real guns and an actual history of issues kill kids.

The Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in December was not perpetrated by a young child who openly used his imagination, mingled, or had friends to holler “BANG!” at. Adam Lanza was age 20, a young man who had palpable issues, and went back to a school he'd once attended to do harm. Also, I haven't seen any reports on Lanza ever pretending to shoot people with his finger, Legos, or a stuffed toy.

On the other hand, I do approve of the incredibly brave fourth-grade boy in Spokane, Wash. who heard two fifth-grade boys conspiring to kill a little girl in the elementary school, realized they had real weapons, and reported that to a teacher, according to The Spokesman-Review.

The boys at Fort Colville Elementary School were arrested after a search revealed one boy had a knife and a handgun in his backpack, The Spokesman-Review reported. “The boys, ages 10 and 11, were expected to be formally charged in juvenile court with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, possession of a firearm and witness-tampering for allegedly bringing a stolen gun and a knife to school and threatening to kill a number of classmates,” also according to The Spokesman-Review.

Stevens County prosecutor Tim Rasmussen said, "These young men conspired to kill. It was interrupted by the bravery of a fourth grader who saw something and said something ... and interrupted a murder."

As the mom of four boys, I have learned that the bubble we try to put our kids in doesn't hold. Despite all my granola-headed, non-violent, zero-tolerance for real world bad stuff parenting policies, my eldest, Zoltan, 19, is in college studying criminal justice and Homeland Security at Virginia Commonwealth University and wants to use guns to protect us – to use all kinds of firearms that he imagines shooting at guys who try to hurt our kids.

My son Ian, 17, is a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Blue Belt (at 15, he was one of the youngest ever awarded) and is pro-gun-ownership because he works closely with military men and women, training them in self-defense so they can go use guns to protect us.

My third son is a cellist at 13 and loves those crazy driving video games, so I suppose at worst I have to worry about vehicular homicide.

Then, two days ago, I found myself pouncing on Quin when I heard him tell the cat, “I'm gonna shoot 'ya using ice beam!” as he pointed a menacing finger at Cat2. She was apparently being a Pokemon character in his mind, and he was in a “battle” in his imagination.

“MOM! I was just doing a battle.” Quin said. “It's a game. It's a finger," he said waggling it at me like Dikembe Mutumbo might at someone trying to take a shot on him in the NBA or in a GEICO TV ad. "It's not the end of the world!”

The question is whether others know that he's playing if he slips-up and does it near the school or a zealous, nervous hall monitor, because then it's not a game anymore.

If he does that anywhere near the elementary school he will be suspended, branded a potential criminal, maker of “terroristic threats;” and because he has Aspergers Syndrome, he'll likely become the neighborhood pariah for life. Now Mommy's jumping at shadows.

I wonder if it's possible to undo the damage all this child-shaming is doing to innocent children who are, on the whole, likely mimicking what they see on TV and in games.

According to The Virginian-Pilot, an 8-year-old boy from Minnieville Elementary School in Woodbridge, Virg. who was suspended for "threatening to harm self or others," after pointing his finger like a gun after another child pretended to shoot him with a bow and arrow, has had his school disciplinary records wiped clean of the offense. The action carried with it the same category as bringing a real weapon to school.

It's good news that the child's records will not carry the taint, but I fear it will not stop the finger pointing at the child who was “the bad kid” suspended and in disgrace for something many parents feel is age-appropriate, common behavior.

We need to rethink this approach, before one of our kids gets so emotionally wounded that he or she decides to take it out on the place that branded him or her a threat in what could become our nation's worst act of self-fulfilling prophecy.

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