What's the message behind school suspensions for toy guns, hand gestures?

As a former high school academic dean, student adviser and teacher of grades seven through college, I certainly dealt with my fair share of behavioral and academic student issues.

There were instances of cheating on exams, real and imagined bullying, a lack of parental involvement, student/teacher conflicts, teacher/parent clashes and more.

One thing I luckily never had to face was the potential suspension of a child for making a toy gun out of materials in art class, or using his or her hand as a pretend gun during recess. Regardless, it is a suspension trend that is lately all too common.


The most recent incident occurred in Chicago on Jan. 31 and has been making headlines since. Fredrick Funston Elementary School suspended a sixth-grader, Caden Cook, during a random, in-school manual “pat-down” after the boy voluntarily handed over a toy gun he had accidentally left in his pocket the night before.

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The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit organization that defines itself as "deeply committed to protecting the constitutional freedoms of every American and the integral human rights of all people," has come to the boy's defense.

The Institute cites that Cook "was suspended for allegedly violating the school’s weapons policy against dangerous objects, in addition to being ordered to undergo counseling, and subjected to intimidation tactics, interrogation, and dire threats by school officials — all without his mother being present."

I'm still stuck on the fact that a non-firing toy gun somehow violates a school's weapons policy.

2013 featured many similar suspensions. A 5-year-old boy at Pinewood Elementary School in Mount Holly, N.C., received an in-school suspension for turning his hand into the shape of a gun and gesturing while playing on the playground.

Eight-year-old Jordan Bennett got a one-day suspension from Harmony Community School in St. Cloud, Fla., when he made a similar gesture with his hand while playing cops and robbers.

Seventh-grader Joseph Lyssikatos received a three-day suspension from Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School in Coventry, R.I., after a key chain with a toy gun roughly two inches long fell out of his schoolbag while in class.

And second-grader Josh Welch was suspended for two days from Park Elementary School in Baltimore when the strawberry tart he was trying to turn into the shape of a mountain looked like a gun.

What in heaven's name is happening in our schools? Innocent plastic toy guns, gun gestures during games of cops and robbers and gun key chains have somehow become "dangerous"?

How so? What harm are they inflicting? How is a child's pastry taking the shape of a gun suspension-worthy?

As a kid, I played plenty of games of cops and robbers during school recess.

In middle school, I rarely went anywhere without my water gun in hand or belt. I had a charm key chain in high school; one of those many charms happened to be a gun.

For many years growing up, I had a "Terminator" T-shirt with a big, fat gun logo right in the middle of it.

Guess what? I've never shot a real gun in my life. Playing with water guns didn't somehow pique my interest in real guns, nor did playing cops and robbers inspire me to rob a bank.

I was just a kid, playing a game, having a good time with friends, wearing clothes or jewelry I liked. I didn't have an agenda, nor did my parents. And I'm very lucky that the schools I went to didn't assume that we did.

Good school administrators and teachers today have plenty of real difficulties on their hands. Be they students with learning challenges, packed classrooms, kids with absentee parents or imposed federal standards that limit teacher in-class flexibility – these problems are real and require attention, discipline and problem-solving. Whether a student fashions a gun out of spaghetti and meatballs at lunch shouldn't be on that list.

Also, exactly what message are we sending to kids with these suspensions? That toy guns and guns made out of food or hand gestures are somehow dangerous?

That all real-life guns are bad and the mere thought of them is worthy of punishment?

What about the guns those children’s parents may be using to defend their homes?

I strongly support responsible conversations about guns between children and their parents or guardians. I also fully support school administrators tackling real violence and real threats of violence on school grounds very seriously. These are not matters to be taken lightly. But suspending children for innocent games of cops and robbers sends the wrong message on a topic where the right message is so important.

After being suspended because the gun key chain he won at an arcade fell out during class, Joseph Lyssikatos told NBC 10 News, "I didn't know that [there] was anything wrong with it."

This former administrator and teacher couldn't agree with him more.