It might be a Bozo the Clown plastic gun, but it still got the kid suspended for three days, plus probation

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Under the school district rules, this "weapon" mertis suspension

Three days suspension from third grade, with probation for the rest of the school year.

That’s what Jackson got for taking a weapon to school.

Except that it wasn’t a weapon. That’s just what they called it. And I guess you could call it that, if you happen to have an active imagination or you purchase all of your dangerous weapons at Goofy’s Guns & Gifts. Because it’s one of the goofiest-looking weapons you’ve ever seen.

To be more accurate, it’s a toy gun. And it’s not even a toy gun that looks all that much like a real gun. AR-15 or Glock imitation it’s not.

Bright yellow with bright orange trim, a weird “barrel” and some funky fin-like designs, it looks more like a handgun that George Jetson might have packed for personal security in Orbit City.

Or, as a friend of Mary’s who happens to be a substitute teacher said when she saw a picture of the, uh, weapon: “Oh my gosh, it looks like a gun Bozo the Clown would have.”

Yeah, Bozo would look good packing this piece. All it needs is one of those big “BANG!” flags that shoots out the barrel. Except, of course, that the barrel doesn’t shoot anything.

But regardless of its appearance, the toy gun falls under the Rapid City School District’s “Weapons in Schools” section of the student handbook. The section on weapons begins with language from a state law that makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to possess firearms on the grounds of an elementary of secondary school, or in a vehicle there.

I get that. Makes plenty of sense. But the district adds this to that: “The district will not tolerate imitative or toy guns on school premises. Violation of the statute in any manner will result in a recommendation to the Superintendent for a long-term suspension or expulsion.”

I get the rule against bringing toy guns to school, too. They’re not weapons. But they’re not a good idea at school, either. I’m just not so sure I get the way the rule is applied, which is with a strong dose of the whole zero-tolerance mentality that assumes that the human brain is incapable of nuanced contemplation and judgment.

Expulsion, for a toy gun? Oh, please.

But as administrators made clear, it could have been a lot worse for Jackson than the three days of suspension and a few weeks of probation that he ultimately got. And initially we thought it might be worse.

When Principal Deb Steele called Friday from our beloved neighborhood school, Wilson Elementary, to notify us that our third-grader had been busted for bringing a toy gun to school, I though “Uh-oh. That kid will be seeing some serious detention time and probably lose his free time options for the rest of the school year.”

Or something like that.

But Deb right away mentioned a 10-day suspension as one possibility. And she made it clear that there was the potential for more than that, including suspension for the school year, under the school-district policy that seems to tie a lot of hands.

Remember: It said “long-term suspension or expulsion.” For toy guns. It’s in policy, in black and white, or maybe in color if you’ve got a good printer.

Initially, it seemed, well, really ludicrous to a not-yet-well-educated-on-weapons-policy mind to even be discussing, seriously and with an actual school administrator, the possibility of such seemingly draconian punishment for a third-grader who took a toy gun to school in his backpack.

But I was about to get educated, which is what educators do, after all.

You might wonder what, exactly, our third-grader did with the toy gun? Well, he didn’t take it out in class or wave it around the halls or the playground, or point it and threaten to shoot anyone with the gun that couldn’t shoot anyway. Nothing like that.

Near as anyone can tell based on accounts from Jackson and from the third-grade friend who turned him in (at one point in life I might have said “who ratted him out,” but I’d like to think I’ve matured), Jackson took the toy gun out of his backpack on the playground and showed it to that same friend. Then he put it back in the backpack. And when they went back to class, that same friend then told the teacher, who told the principal.

Apparently that is the required response under school policy. I get that, too, I guess.

And away we went, talking about how our third-grader brought a weapon to school. Well, they talked about that. I refused to call it a weapon, of course, because it’s not. Even a BB gun is a weapon, to some degree. This. Is. Not. A. Weapon. Period.

It’s a toy gun, but it’s still serious. Why? Well, it’s against the rules. Beyond that, stuff happens. Mistakes. Terrible ones. Take the case of the 15-year-old student at a San Diego high school who was shot and killed by police just last Saturday as he walked toward two police officers with what appeared to be a real handgun pointed at them, and refused calls to drop the weapon.

They shot him. He died. It was a BB gun. Horrible. A mistake that killed. But it wasn’t an orange-and-yellow toy gun, either. And the student wasn’t 8.

Rapid City Schools Assistant Superintendent Brad Berens, who made the call on the penalties, responded to my “it’s not a weapon” argument with one of his own: “Truly, a weapon could be anything. I could take a pen and make it a weapon. I understand I’m going to an extreme to make a point.”

I get that, too. And in truth a pen would be a lot more weapon-like than this goofy plastic gun that doesn’t work and doesn’t even have enough heft to be used as a club. A pencil would be a lot more threatening, too. And they're all over the school. For now at least. But who knows?

In a lot of ways, the school district policy goes to the kind of extreme that Berens went to to make its point: Don’t bring guns to school; don’t bring weapons of other kinds to school; don’t bring BB guns or even toy guns to school.

I understand the reason for the policy. So did a friend, who’s almost as old as I am, when I was telling him about Jackson’s experience and the school response.

“But whatever happened to the drawer?” he asked. “Used to be there was a drawer where stuff like toy guns and things went after they were confiscated.”

Stuff went in the drawer, as the main punishment. Maybe you got the stuff back after a certain time period, or at the end of the school year, maybe not.

So, what happened to the drawer, as its own form of punishment?

Well, Columbine happened, I guess. And Sandy Hook Elementary. And dozens of slightly less horrific attacks where guns at schools produced one family tragedy after another, and clearly changed the thinking of school administrators.

In good ways, and not so good ways, perhaps.

I don’t recall that kind of horror being visited on public schools back when my buddies and I were running around the gravel playground at Chamberlain Elementary with jackknives in our pockets. That was a era when during the fall hunting season every third or fourth vehicle in the high-school parking lot had a firearm or two in its trunk, or in some cases in a pickup gun rack.

But a lot has happened since then, including a 3 1/2-hour hostage situation in 1991 at Rapid City Stevens High School. Stevens student Ryan Harris, then 17, walked into a math class with a sawed-off 12 gauge and ordered the teacher to leave. Then he held more than 20 students hostage, periodically shooting holes in the wall and ceiling, until Stevens senior Chris Ericks saw a chance to take away the shotgun, with help from another student, and end the standoff.

Harris got a lot more than suspended from school for that. He ended up charged with felony kidnapping. And he had a 40-year sentence suspended provided he met court mandates, including psychiatric treatment. But seven years later, as authorities looked for the 24-year-old Harris in North Carolina in connection with the shooting death of a woman there, he was involved in another standoff with police. He died after shooting himself in the head with a handgun.

Thoughts of what might have been at Stevens in 1991 still linger in the minds of school administrators here.

Thoughts of what was, and how it could have been worse, also linger at Harrisburg High School. There in September of 2015 a 15-year-old student walked into the office of Principal Kevin Lein, pulled out a gun and shot Lein in the arm.

Assistant Principal Ryan Rollinger tackled the kid and, with help from the athletic director, took away the gun restrained the student until police arrived. Lein survived the shooting.

Then, of course, there are the accidental shootings of kids by police when a gun, or BB gun is involved. And sometimes, rarely it seems, it involves toy guns. But in almost every case people were holding things that looked exactly like or almost like real guns.

A Washington Post story last December reported that at least 86 people were shot and killed across the nation by police over the previous two years in cases that involved real-looking pellet guns, bb guns, toys or replicas. Only two of them, though, were actually toys. And one was a lighter.

None of them were Bozo the Clown toy guns.

Still, that drawer at school that my buddy talked about? The one where a kid might lose a pack of cigarettes or a pocketknife, if he were stupid enough to take it out of his pocket and flash it around on the playground? It might be a relic of days gone by. Simpler, gentler days.

I’m sure administrators like Berens long for such times.

“The schools across the nation are taking a very serious approach to weapons of any kind,” he said. “Whether they look real or not is not the issue always.”

Administrators are instructed to err on the side of safety.

“An object such as a gun, in our days now, automatically puts everybody on extreme high alert,” he said. “We don’t get the opportunity to say,’Is that a real gun or a toy gun.’”

Well, they certainly get the opportunity after it has been confiscated, as they did with Jackson. Which would be a good time, I think, to begin a process of consideration and discernment, rather than zero tolerance. But I understand the concern. Weapons in school are serious business, whether it’s because they pose a threat to the students and staff or because the student with the weapon could be injured by it, or by police responding to a weapons call.

As for the goofy looking toy gun that Jackson had, Berens said: “What’s unfortunate is, even a real firearm could be made to look like it’s not a real firearm.”

I wonder if that has happened anywhere at any time, where a kid brought an actual firearm to school that was made to look like something Bozo the Clown or George Jetson might carry?

I don’t mean to joke, too much. But it’s a toy gun that looks exactly like what it is. And it’s not a firearm or a weapon. To call it such is to engage in prejudicial hyperbole that seems counterproductive to having a rational discussion. Add that to zero-tolerance stipulations that can straight-jacket administrators into ridiculousness and it makes it a little hard to tailor the punishment to fit the infraction and the student.

To be fair, I’m sure they tailor as much as they can. And I think there was some tailoring for Jackson. Obviously, a BB gun or a real firearm would have brought much more real and severe consequences. But it’s a pretty rigid policy. Suspension seems to be mandatory for toy guns brought to school. It’s just a question of how many days.

Aside from the length of suspension, I really don’t understand the idea of keeping kids out of school as a form of punishment. I can see it if a kid is a threat or is considered a potential threat in need of separation and treatment. Nobody hinted that the toy gun incident on Friday suddenly made Jackson a threat to students or staff three days later, when his suspension began. And he obviously wasn't considered a threat on Friday, after the toy gun was taken, since he finished the day in school without fuss.

If he isn’t a threat or doesn’t need some sort of immediate counseling or treatment, why suspend him? He wants to be in school. He needs to be in school. And every year school administrators talk about how valuable each day of in-school instruction is, and promote efforts to reduce absenteeism. Yet they mandate periods of absenteeism with this policy.

Go figure.

At least those are some of the arguments I made during discussions that made me feel at one moment like an unwilling character in a Saturday Night Live skit and in another like a lawyer negotiating with detectives for a client in a Law & Order episode.

Weapons in schools are no laughing matter. And Jackson broke the school district’s rule against “imitative or toy guns on school premises.” In fact, that’s what he said when I asked him how he felt about being turned in by his friend.

“Well, I did break the rules,” he said.

Then he went out and played happily with the same friend. No resentment at all.

He is more charitable than I might have been back in the day had one of my third-grade friends turned me in for a similar infraction — which, of course, would likely have meant my toy gun would have ended up in ‘the drawer.”

But those were different times. And I assume kids are instructed to report any “weapon” they see on school property. And presumably kids being kids will adopt the language of administrators, which makes a toy gun a weapon.

So Jackson’s bud was probably just being a good member of the school family.  He might get a merit badge. Shucks, maybe he deserves one.

Neither Mary nor I had yet reached that point of gentle perspective when we first spoke, in separate calls, to Deb Steele on Friday. She called to inform us of what Jackson had done and what the possible penalties might be. But Deb hadn’t reached Berens yet, so we went into the weekend not knowing for sure what Monday would bring.

We hoped we could avoid a suspension and find punishments other than removing a kid from school. I hoped that in particular since I would be the one staying home with Jackson. And while I'm semi-retired, I had some work planned that would need to be canceled or postponed. So Jackson had his homework done and his lunch in his backpack as he and Mary and I sat in the hallway outside the office at Wilson before 8 a.m., Monday. He wanted to go to school. We hoped he’d be able to.

As we sat there, Jackson’s former teachers and others on staff stopped and greeted us, and especially him. They are always so kind to him. And kids in several grades looked at him quizzically as they passed on their way to start their day in class.

Wilson is a remarkable neighborhood school. And the staff there — from those in the principal’s office to the teachers and aides, counselors and librarians — have been especially valuable to Jackson, a plenty-bright child who has struggled with some behavioral problems that had nothing to do with threatening other students.

His behavior at school has improved dramatically in the last two years, thanks to a large network of support that includes the committed professionals at Wilson.

But policy overrides professional discernment, or old-school drawers where contraband might go. And when we met with Deb Steele Monday morning, she told us she had “gone to bat for Jackson on this,” noting to Berens that Jackson hadn’t done anything threatening with the toy gun.

Then she said Berens had decided that the punishment would be a 90-day suspension from school with 87 days “held in abeyance.” That apparently meant any similar violation within the 87 school days could invoke the full suspension.

Which sort of created the Saturday Night Live-Law & Order vertigo again. It seemed like a lot of weight over a kid’s head, stretching well into the next school year. So we kept talking, which is an important thing to do. Talk, don’t yell. Don’t threaten. Don’t defame or demean.

And we tried to remember that it's tough duty, trying to keep kids and staff safe and everybody happy on such an emotional issue.

“We have had stories about Rapid City Schools being too tough on guns and not tough enough on guns,” Berens said. “We’re trying to come up with a plan that everybody feels comfortable with.”

I’d say Mary and I are not there yet, especially since, again, we're not talking about guns. We're talking about a toy gun.
But after the meeting with Steele and the follow-up phone conversation with Berens, we found a punishment we could, grudgingly, accept without appealing for a hearing with the school board: three days suspension, with probation for the remainder of this school year.

That’s more out of school time than we hoped for. But we’re glad the probation didn’t carry over to the new school year. And we’re grateful that school administrators were willing to hear and discuss our concerns.

We certainly heard their concerns on bringing toy guns to school, whatever they might be called officially. And we’re making sure Jackson hears them, too.

He sat quietly through the meeting at school, looking embarrassed and kind of dazed and occasionally responding to a question, usually without looking up. And when we got home, I asked him how he felt about it all.

“I’m confused,” he said. “Maybe when I get older I’ll know how to understand it.”

Maybe. But I’m pretty old. And I’m struggling to figure it out myself.



The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.