Correction appended at 9:24 a.m., Sept. 11, 2013
The drill is well known: A student brings a gun to school and suffers the consequences through detention, suspension, or expulsion. It’s the price children and teens in the public school system must pay for the violent actions of their peers in highly publicized massacres like Columbine.
But, what happens when the student is punished for yielding a weapon, when the only weapon he holds is his own hand mimicking a firearm? Such was the case for an 11-year-old in Calvert County, Md. who faced an all day in- school-suspension for shooting his fingers like a gun on a school bus last week.
“It seems illogical on its face,” says Kim Anderson, director of the center for advocacy at the National Education Association, which opposes zero-tolerance policies. “It seems like something is wrong when students make hand gestures and get punished this severely.”
Unfortunately, this case does not stand-alone. In fact, it’s only the most recent. There have been numerous incidents of students facing suspension for gun-related hand gesturing, for shaping PopTart into the shape of a gun and even for drawing a stick-figure to look like a gun.
Thanks to the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, the decades-old federal zero tolerance policy that shows no mercy to students who bring firearms to school, the Department of Education reports that during the 2006-07 school year, 2,695 students were expelled from schools for bringing firearms to school. Fifty-five percent were handguns. By the end of the 2010 school year, over 32,000 students had faced disciplinary action for bringing a weapon to school, including a finger-gun-toting 6-year-old in Michigan.
In post Sandy-Hook, post-Columbine America, school boards and administrators have faced immense pressure from their communities to ensure that students are safe while on school property. That has meant the expansion of zero-tolerance policies to include using and selling drugs, bullying, fighting, and possessing a variety of weapons. School districts across the country have faced scrutiny for taking zero tolerance to the extreme in their punishment of students for simply participating in playground games like cops & robbers.
In Calvert County, Maryland the board is revisiting its weapons policy in the wake of the incident that led to the 11-year-old’s suspension. But there are those, like school security expert Ken Trump, who argue the policies themselves are not the problem. “The vast majority of school administrators strive for firm, fair, and consistent discipline policies that adhere to common sense,” Trump tells TIME. “It’s about how you administer the policies that you have; unfortunately you have some administrators who don’t use common sense.”
Anderson argues that while policies that protect students are necessary for maintaining a stable learning environment, the severity of many zero-tolerance punishments, including the policies that lead to suspension over a hand gesture, go a bit too far. “The point of discipline should be to protect the safety of students and staff and makes sure that the educational climate is nurturing and allows students second chances,” Anderson adds.
Trump says the cases where students are being punished for hand gestures, pop tarts, and drawings are the exception, not the rule. “The majority of administrators air on the side of giving kids a break versus being overly harsh,” Trump says. “For every incident that you point to of a principal being overly hard, I can point to several where an administrator has failed to report serious crimes.”
Correction: This article previously stated that the National Education Association (NEA) opposes zero-tolerance policies for weapons. That is incorrect; while the NEA opposes zero-tolerance policies, the organization supports efforts to keep guns out of schools.