Thursday February 7, 2013

Is there a fine line between safety measures and policy overkill?

As we learned last week, in this new age of heightened school safety following the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., any and every threat will be taken seriously and school officials will act accordingly.

"Schools have to be really careful," Vermont Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca told us during a visit to the Reformer offices earlier this week. "Ultimately, it used to be reading, writing, arithmetic -- (now), it’s safety -- first and foremost, safety."

Or perhaps he said it best when he added: "I think you overreact to make sure the kids are safe."

Perhaps there are degrees of overreaction.

Good overreaction? If local school officials wanted to stress a heightened state of security for a week over vague threats -- making sure entrances were locked and monitored and students exercised caution -- well, we can live with that. After all, the ultimate goal is to ensure student safety. Good job!

Bad overreaction? Consider the following news items:

Dateline: Loveland, Colo. A second-grader at Mary Blair Elementary School was recently suspended for throwing an imaginary grenade during recess.

"(The boy) was playing a game of his own making, called ‘rescue the world,’" according to a report from the Huffington Post, "when he tossed the imaginary grenade into a make-believe box filled with something evil, making explosion sound effects."

The boy’s mother told Colorado TV station KDVR that she didn’t "think the rule is very realistic for kids this age."

The school’s principal reportedly called the mom Friday afternoon to inform her of the suspension, confirming that the 7-year-old didn’t have anything in his hand at the time, according to the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

Well, if he was throwing rocks or other objects around, presenting a safety hazard, perhaps we’d understand. But in this case, we’re not sure what message is supposed to be taken away from this situation.

Dateline: Mt. Carmel, Pa. A kindergarten student, talking to friends last month while waiting for the bus after school, is suspended for saying she’ll shoot a friend Š with a Hello Kitty "bubble gun."

"’I’ll shoot you, you shoot me, and we’ll all play together,’ the kindergartener says," according to a report from CNN. "Soon after, she was sent home after being issued a 10-day suspension for a ‘terroristic threat,’ as indicated on the suspension form signed by Mount Carmel Area Elementary School Principal Susan Nestico."

Yikes!

Though, to be fair, the 10-day suspension was changed to a 2-day one. (That’s meant to be sarcastic.) The 5-year-old’s parents have since hired a lawyer and are looking for an apology from the school and to have the suspension removed from the girl’s record, in part so she can transfer to another school.

Dateline: Hyannis, Mass. A 5-year-old boy was threatened with suspension from his school’s after-care program after he crafted a gun out of Lego pieces and pointed it at other students.

The boy’s mother told ABC News that she was "dumbfounded" when she got a letter from Hyannis West Elementary School. Her son had gotten his first written warning the day before for "using day care toys inappropriately."

"Please be reminded that a second written warning will result in two weeks out of day care," the letter added.

"At first," the mother told ABC News, "she was scared that her son could face suspension from the day care. ‘And then I took a little time to think about it and I was just like, this is really ridiculous. He’s 5 years old, and this is what 5-year-olds do. They play with Legos. They do finger guns.’"

While we’d hate to second-guess the decisions of anyone entrusted to care for and educate our children, it’s a little unnerving to see the "new normal" facing youth in our nation’s schools. Zero tolerance policies seem to create as many negative situations as they aim to prevent.

Certainly there’s more to these stories than these briefs present, and we’re sure the school’s have their own version of what happened. But in any case, we think there’s a balance between keeping kids safe and letting them, well, be kids.

Let’s hope we can figure out what that balance is before it’s too late.