- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2000

It has come to be known as the "March 15 playground incident" in the New Jersey press, and now, the national media.

A few weeks ago, a quartet of 5-year-old boys was suspended from an elementary school in Sayreville, some 25 miles outside Manhattan. The little boys were playing cops and robbers at recess, small hands poised like guns and big voices full of bravado.

"Boom," one of the diminutive perpetrators reportedly hollered at a classmate. "I have a bazooka, and I'm going to shoot you."

The classmate told a teacher, the teacher told Wilson School Principal Georgia Baumann, and she in turn phoned the local school superintendent. They determined the schoolyard offense worthy of suspension.

Mrs. Baumann told the boys they couldn't come to school for three days. She called parents and grandparents. The boys cried, and the parents were left puzzled.

Thursday, school officials did not add much detail to the story, though one said, "it was not just a simple game of cops and robbers." Children on the playground, apparently, felt "threatened" by what they heard.

"I understand there is fear and paranoia going on, but there has to be some rationale to it," said one father, who wished to remain anonymous to protect his son.

"They should have made them stay after school or go back to writing on the chalkboard," the boy's mother added. "I'll go as far as I have to go to change policy."

But with serious school violence afoot around the country, policy-making can be a tricky thing described as "anguishing" by one of three school superintendents now involved in the situation.

As of Thursday, the board of education, school officials, local politicians and the American Civil Liberties Union have offered opinions to local and national press, including Reuters, which billed the story "Crime, School, New Jersey."

"This is a no-tolerance policy. We're very firm on weapons and threats," district superintendent William Bauer said. "Given the climate of our society, we cannot take any of these statements in a light manner."

"It was not just a simple game of cops and robbers," said Assistant School Superintendent Dennis Fyffe. "This behavior was enough to warrant the punishment."

The New Jersey ACLU pronounced the suspension too extreme, and suggested "a cooperative decision with the parents."

The evolution of this playground stunt into community identity crisis is typical. In the past four years, scores of similar incidents have generated conflict, media coverage and court dates.

Children have been expelled or suspended from school for bringing water pistols, plastic toy shotgun shells, butter knives and even nail clippers to class interpreted in each case as a violation of written codes against weapons or violence.

"He doesn't understand the consequences," noted one mother last year after her boy was permanently expelled from a Virginia school system for drawing a picture of a gun.

Zero-tolerance drug policies have also caused children to be suspended for bringing such things as Midol, Advil and Scope mouthwash onto school grounds.

While some applaud such get-tough policies, others criticize school districts for loss of perspective and for trivializing the regulations.

Schools, meanwhile, are being sued by parents who believe their children's rights have been violated by the discipline. Annual legal bills for school districts with more than 10,000 pupils can be up to $1 million per year, according to National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Things are still a little tense back in Sayreville. School officials remain behind the principal, Mrs. Baumann; parents ponder what to do next.

A local assembly member, meanwhile, has called for a town meeting next week.

"It's time to address it," said Arline Friscia. "We need to bring the community together to decide how to deal with these situations in the future."

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