Fake guns are carrying real consequences for a rising number of American students in the nervous aftermath to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings.
On Tuesday, police in Alexandria charged a 10-year-old Douglas MacArthur Elementary School student with brandishing a firearm after finding a replica gun inside his backpack.
He was arrested just days after Florence, Ariz., high school student Daniel McClaine Jr. was suspended for using a picture of a gun as the "wallpaper" of his school-issued laptop.
Many other students across the nation have faced detention, lengthy suspensions and even expulsion for making firearms out of Legos or bringing cheap, plastic toy pistols to class. A Montgomery County Public Schools student was even suspended recently for pointing his fingers in the shape of a gun, though the suspension was overturned.
With much of the nation caught up in a furious debate over guns and Second Amendment rights in the wake of Newtown, school leaders are struggling to walk the line between prudence and hysterical overreaction.
Some gun rights advocates think they have crossed that line, but many in the education community argue that it's better to take action first and ask questions later.
"School administrators are put in the position of having to react to events that under normal circumstances wouldn't amount to too much of a concern, but today, with all of the shootings that have gone on, people are very, very edgy. So they react very quickly," said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators who was a school district chief for 27 years, including seven years in Fairfax County.
"Administrators want to send out a message that at times like this, with everybody on high alert, talking about a gun, bringing in a toy gun, anything along those lines is just not the right thing to do right now," he said. "The rule of thumb for a school administrator is, first and foremost, the safety of the students. If you're wrong [about a gun threat], then you're wrong. But if you don't act, you can't go back later and change that."
Caution vs. common sense
No one disputes a school's duty to ensure a safe environment for students, but many think that districts have begun to disregard common sense.
Daniel McClaine's father told local news media in Arizona last week that his son's three-day suspension was ridiculous.
"It wasn't like he was standing in front of the school holding the gun. He shouldn't have ever been suspended. Not for something so frivolous," he said.
The Florence Unified School District released a statement on Tuesday saying it had met with the family and that "the situation was resolved to all parties' satisfaction."
"Parents deserve reassurance that school districts will do all we can to keep their children safe, and rightly so," said district Superintendent Gary Nine. "Teachers and bus drivers have never before felt that they were on the front lines; they do now. Our nation's public schools sit exactly in the middle of our nation's present gun dilemma."
The rash of incidents has convinced some gun rights advocates that American public schools have an agenda in the national debate over guns. School administrators, they say, are no longer concerned only with safety but are actively pushing an anti-gun ideology.
"I've been watching this phenomenon for years. One could come to the conclusion that school administrators have lost their minds, but I'm more convinced that it's indoctrination. The idea is to scare children so much that they would never want to own a gun," said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group that touts itself as even more ardent in the defense of the Second Amendment than the National Rifle Association.
"If they're not bringing the real thing to school and it's clearly not a threat to anybody -- you almost want to tell the schools, 'Get a life. Don't you have anything better to do?' This is crazy," he said.
Schools are limited when it comes to discussing the incidents, having policies in place that prevent them from divulging details of specific student discipline cases.
Mr. Nine said that all parties are satisfied with the resolution of the Florence incident but did not elaborate.
Montgomery County schools also declined to discuss the recent case, but pointed out that students and their families are informed of what is and isn't allowed.
"We make it clear to our students and parents at the beginning of the year that weapons or facsimile weapons of any kind should not be on school property under any circumstances and doing so can lead to serious consequences. We always take safety and security very seriously and will continue to do so," spokesman Dana Tofig said in a statement.
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