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Associated Press
Madison Guarna was suspended from her Pennsylvania kindergarten for making a “terroristic threat” with a Hello Kitty bubble gun.

Zero tolerance gone too far?

Schools react harshly to kids’ gun-like play

Waiting in line for the bus, a Pennsylvania kindergartener tells her pals she’s going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty toy that makes soap bubbles.

In Maryland, a 6-year-old boy pretends his fingers are a gun during a playground game of cops and robbers.

In Massachusetts, a 5-year-old boy attending an after-school program makes a gun out of Legos and points it at other students while “simulating the sound of gunfire,” as one school official put it.

Kids with active imaginations? Or potential threats to school safety?

Some school officials are taking the latter view, suspending or threatening to suspend small children over behavior their parents consider perfectly normal and age-appropriate – even now, with schools in a state of heightened sensitivity after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December.

The extent to which the Newtown, Conn., shooting might influence educators’ disciplinary decisions is unclear. But parents contend that administrators are projecting adult fears onto children who know little about the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators and who certainly pose no threat to anyone.

“It’s horrible what they’re doing to these kids,” said Kelly Guarna, whose 5-year-old daughter, Madison, was suspended by Mount Carmel Area School District in eastern Pennsylvania last month for making a “terroristic threat” with the bubble gun.

“They’re treating them as mini-adults, making them grow up too fast, and robbing them of their imaginations.”

Mary Czajkowski, superintendent of Barnstable Public Schools in Hyannis, Mass., acknowledged that Sandy Hook has teachers and parents on edge. But she defended Hyannis West Elementary School’s warning to a 5-year-old boy who chased his classmates with a gun he’d made from plastic building blocks, saying the student didn’t listen to the teacher when she told him repeatedly to stop.

The school told his mother if it happened again, he’d face a two-week suspension.

“Given the heightened awareness and sensitivity, we must do all that we can to ensure that all students and adults both remain safe and feel safe in schools,” Czajkowski said in a statement.

Conceived as a way to improve school security and maintain consistent discipline and order, “zero tolerance” policies were enshrined by a 1994 federal law that required states to mandate a minimum one-year expulsion of any student caught with a firearm on school property.

Over the years, many states and school districts expanded zero tolerance to include offenses as varied as fighting, skipping school or arguing with a teacher.

But the original 1994 federal law, and most state and local policies, give school administrators the flexibility to tailor punishments to fit the circumstances, noted school safety expert Kenneth Trump.

Trump said most school officials bend over backward to be fair. But he added there’s no question that Sandy Hook weighs heavily.

“It’s a normal occurrence to have a heightened sensitivity after a high-profile tragedy, but that does not negate the need for common sense,” he said.

Maryland father Stephen Grafton said common sense was in short supply in a case involving his 6-year-old son, who he said was suspended from White Marsh Elementary School in Trappe for using his hand as a “gun” during recess.

Grafton, a staff sergeant in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, said administrators were criminalizing play. He said he told his son he shouldn’t shoot pretend guns because it makes some children upset, “but it was a difficult conversation to have because he didn’t do anything wrong.”

The school lifted the suspension after a day and removed it from his record, Grafton said.

“It’s a very hypersensitive time,” he said. “But, still, common sense has to apply for something like this, and it looks like common sense just went completely out the window.”

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