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Zero-tolerance or jackass parent?

Fourth grader suspended in Nerf gun incident spins out of control

nerfreactor

A fourth grader stands up at the front of a class to talk about a favorite toy, opens his backpack and declares “how did that get in there?” while pulling out a Nerf gun.  The class laughs, and the teacher frowns.  This happened last week at Miller Elementary School in Warner Robins, Georgia.

The kid, Ramsay McDonald, was given a three day in-school suspension.  His dad, Scott McDonald, called the local TV station and told his story.  13WMAZ aired the story, and it’s been causing quite a bit of outrage.

“They told me my son brought a weapon to school and they asked me if I was aware,” McDonald said Wednesday. “I asked them what it was and they said it was a plastic Nerf gun.”

Mike Huckabee picked this up yesterday on his Facebook page.

Just when I think schools have finally learned to stop overreacting to students carrying anything that even remotely resembles a gun, from a Pop-Tart to their own fingers, someone finds a new way to have a cow. In Warner Robins, Georgia, a teacher at Miller Elementary told fourth-graders to bring in their most beloved toy to show to the class. The next day, Scott MacDonald got a call that his son Ramsey had been suspended for three days for bringing a weapon to school. That fearsome weapon? His big, plastic Nerf gun. You know, the toy that was designed to be the least destructive toy on Earth. He told his dad he wouldn’t have taken it to school, but it never even occurred to him that anyone would think it was a weapon. That’s because he’s only about 10 years old. You have to be old enough to have a college degree before you become that irrational.

We’ve lost our minds in Houston County, Georgia.  I live in Warner Robins, and I was simply in shock that in our conservative enclave, the very heart of liberty-minded rational patriotism, home of Robins AFB and the F-15 capital of the world, that zero-tolerance insanity had roosted in our midst.

This stuff only happens in other places, like Anne Arundel County Maryland, where the infamous pop-tart gun was invented, or New Kensington, Pennsylvania, where a first-grader turned in a toy gun and faces expulsion. It doesn’t happen in our city, because we’re sane.  Yet that’s what the news is reporting.

Is the news right?  Well, yes, and no.

In a followup, 13WMAZ finally reported the school’s side.

On Friday, Houston School Supt. Mark Scott said Ramsey McDonald’s suspension was always in-school; he said the boy was never supposed to be suspended out of school.

He declined to discuss the specifics of his case, but said the suspension was not based on school officials viewing the Nerf gun as a dangerous item: “We never viewed that as a weapon.”

We pay our school administrators a whole pile of money to run these schools.  Superintendent Mark Scott makes somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000/year, and has a staff of administrators who earn well over a hundred grand each.  I realize that the school is fighting with both hands tied behind their backs.  They, unlike Scott McDonald, can’t say whatever they want.  They can’t even tell the whole truth, because of privacy issues.  I wouldn’t want the superintendent talking to the press about my kid’s behavioral issues and I’m glad they are protecting young Ramsey.  I sympathize with their plight.

But really, they made quite a mess of what should have been a non-event.  I believe it when Mark Scott says they didn’t consider a Nerf gun to be a weapon.  A Nerf gun is not on the list of weapons as defined by the State of Georgia.  My friend and former Houston County DA Kelly Burke wrote this on Facebook:

The Georgia Legislature tried, really they did. They tried to eliminate the stupid “Zero Tolerance” excuse that school districts abuse to do stupid stuff to our kids. This year, the Legislature amended OCGA 16-11-127.1 and made knives, air guns, etc. a “hazardous object” instead of a dangerous weapon as it was before.

The law still provides for expulsion for a dangerous weapon (guns mainly) but now has a different provision for hazardous objects. What is a hazardous object? A lot of stuff, but the closest it comes to a Nerf toy is “or any instrument of like kind, any nonlethal air gun” (Line 219 of HB826). So could a 4th grader be considered to have a hazardous object when he possessed a Nerf toy? If you strained real hard, I guess.

It’s the parent’s word versus the school superintendent, and which one is right?  Was Ramsey suspended for a Nerf gun because the school believes it’s hazardous?  I have a radical hypothesis: a Nerf gun is just a toy.  To test this hypothesis, walk into Academy Sports, or Bass Pro Shop, go to the gun counter and ask for a Nerf gun.  Do this at every gun shop in town and you’ll get the same answer 100% of the time.  On this point also, I believe Mark Scott over Scott McDonald.

Yet couldn’t the school have found a better way to handle this?  A fourth grader brings a Nerf gun to school, and is given a three day in school suspension.  That truly seems excessive.  A whole list of behaviors that can result in discipline is in the student code of conduct, found on page 43 of the Elementary School Handbook which every student and parent receives (a document written at college level, to govern first graders’ behavior, I kid you not).  The catch-all in that code is:

  • Any Other Conduct:  A student shall not engage in any other conduct not listed above subversive to the good order and discipline of his/her school.

So in the first week of school, little Ramsey was labeled a subversive.  For this, he was given a punishment ranked ninth in the list of disciplinary actions (on page 44 if you’re keeping up), below isolation, time-out, parent conference, probation and detention.  Apparently this was a major act of subversion.

Not only that, but the school also called his father and told him about the suspension, and perhaps weren’t very clear about the reason.  They said that Ramsey did something bad relating to the Nerf gun and was getting suspended (did they say in-school or out of school?  We don’t know for sure).  The school sure got itself in a pickle.  They decided to dole out some pretty severe punishment to a nine-year-old, and in their imperious way, told the father without giving a lot of reasons.  I’ve heard that before about our school system:  parents are given news of disciplinary action with the bedside manner of Dr. House informing a terminal patient of his fate.

They doubled down on their problem when the press came calling, by failing to control rumors and not getting their act together.  Houston County Board of Education has an entire Community Relations department whose job it is to deal with the press, and they were not involved.  HCBE could not have fumbled and bumbled this any worse than they did.

But there’s another side to the story.  As badly as the HCBE failed to justify a three day in school suspension, it was within their rights to do it.  Now that the story has gone national, I feel it’s important to get the truth out, to protect other school districts from making the same dumb mistakes.  Since the district can’t speak for itself, I will speak.

I am a simple blogger and not an employee of the school district, so I can say what I want, and I now know the truth.  My sources can’t be identified because they would be accused of violating privacy.  In any case, there’s no point in the school putting anyone on camera, because, as one source said, “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.”

Here’s what really happened.

The teacher gave students an assignment, to bring a toy and talk about it.  She told her class what they could and could not bring, specifically, no squirt guns, no Nerf guns.  The kids laughed when they heard that.  One kid, Ramsey McDonald, decided to be the clown and bring a Nerf gun anyway.

He didn’t tell his dad he was going to do it, he just did it.  Very funny—not!

What do we expect of our schools?  Do we expect them to discipline our kids for us, except when we decide they shouldn’t?  Do we expect our kids to listen to their teachers, except when it’s funny not to?  What should the school expect of our kids?  Should schools teach kids to defy instructions because it’s funny?

Miller Elementary School had a dilemma.  Either discipline the student and risk the “zero tolerance” connection, or let him get away with it.  They decided on the in school suspension, and the next day called Ramsey’s father.  They didn’t tell him the punishment was an out of school suspension, and they didn’t tell him it was because of the Nerf gun and “zero tolerance.”  What Scott McDonald heard versus what the school said is a matter of opinion.

We do know that the punishment was for defying a teacher’s specific instructions.  Justified or not, that’s the punishment, and if McDonald didn’t like it, there are procedures he can follow.  Nope, not McDonald, super-parent of an innocent child, with a story of injustice to tell.  He called the local TV station.  It would never occur to me to make my own son’s suspension into a story for the press.  I would not want him portrayed that way.  Apparently not everyone thinks like me.

I think McDonald knew exactly what would happen.  Just like knee-jerk liberals, knee-jerk conservatives light up like dry tinder soaked with gasoline.  All we needed was a match.

Scott McDonald lit one.  Instead of doing the right thing and disciplining his son for defying a teacher’s school assignment, he embellished a story that was sure to inflame the media and get him his 15 minutes of fame.  Nobody questioned McDonald or his motives, and the press didn’t report the school’s side for two days after the initial story, despite having heard it.  WMAZ could have done a much better job on this, but ratings are ratings and the news cycle doesn’t have a pause button.

In the end, instead of the press-reported story of a school district irrationally suspending a child for an innocent toy, a travesty, we have a disobedient child being used to further his dad’s quest for self-promotion.  We have a school district hoisting themselves up on their own petard, and leaving the elected school board members to take hundreds of angry phone calls—quite literally thrown under the bus.  We have a TV station reporting half a story just to get the ratings.  And we have a national embarrassment on our hands that didn’t have to happen.

Frankly, Scott McDonald is a jackass.

We need school officials in Houston County who think before they act, and a whole lot less dads reacting like Scott McDonald did.  Most importantly, we all need to take a breath and count to ten before we light our hair on fire and shout “witch!” at every situation.  Instead of “ready! fire! aim!” can we first determine the truth before building more mountains out of mole hills (and can we stop mixing metaphors while doing it)?

I think we can.

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