School administrators around the country are keeping a closer eye on warning signs for gun violence after last year's mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., but one Maryland lawmaker says the vigilance too often is crossing into the realm of anti-gun hysteria.
Sen. J.B. Jennings, Baltimore County Republican, has introduced a bill that would bar public school principals from suspending young children for carrying pictures or objects resembling guns or for making gunlike hand gestures.
The legislation, which was brought before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday, comes in response to incidents throughout the nation, including this month's suspension of a 7-year-old Maryland boy who was accused of chewing a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.
Proponents for the bill argued that, while recent gun violence in schools has forced educators to be on the lookout for dangerous signs, many children are being punished and stigmatized for what they consider normal childhood behavior.
"How come zero tolerance has turned into zero common sense?" said B.J. Welch, the father of the Anne Arundel County boy who was suspended for two days for chewing the pastry. "Our country is in a bitter confrontation right now, but it is not something these young children have to be dragged into the middle of."
Since last December's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which a gunman killed 20 children and six school employees, the nation has launched into a gun debate that has seen the Obama administration and various state legislatures propose gun control laws and has put many schools on high alert.
In January, a 5-year-old girl in Pennsylvania was suspended from kindergarten for 10 days after officials said she told another girl that she was going to shoot her with her "Hello Kitty" bubble gun, a child's toy that shoots soap bubbles.
Later that month, a Philadelphia fifth-grader was reprimanded for bringing a piece of paper to school that was folded into the shape of a gun, and in other incidents since in Maryland and Virginia elementary schools students were suspended for making gun gestures with their hands.
"It's gotten frustrating at home," Mr. Jennings said. "I've got calls from constituents saying, 'Enough is enough.'"
Mr. Jennings' bill would limit the punishment of kindergarten through eighth-grade students who are caught making gun gestures or carrying objects or images that resemble guns to a conference between parents and school personnel. Students older than that would receive a conference and could be suspended after a second offense.
The legislation likely faces an uphill battle to passage since it was just introduced on March 7 and Monday will bring "Crossover Day" -- the day by which most bills that have failed to pass their original chamber typically go by the wayside.
Mr. Jennings said the bill could still use some tweaks and that he at least hopes to start a discussion. Several members of the Senate committee were sympathetic and said they believe many school administrators have gotten too politically correct.
Sen. Roy P. Dyson, St. Mary's Democrat, lamented how his county's school district recently implemented a policy in elementary schools banning homemade cake due to the threat of food allergies and prohibiting hugs between adults and students.
The district also banned party invitations in elementary schools out of concern that uninvited children's feelings could be hurt.
"I don't know where we need to go with this, but it seems like we have gone so far to the other extreme," Mr. Dyson said. "We've got to find something just to kind of bring us back."
The bill is far from the most visible gun-related in this year's General Assembly. A gun control bill proposed by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley has cleared the Senate but is stuck in a House committee that is considering softening its restrictions on so-called assault weapons.
The House Judiciary Committee could vote on the bill in coming days along with the House Health and Government Operations Committee, which is also vetting the bill.
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