Gun play: 'Zero tolerance' toward schoolkids could backfire, says expert

Little boys around the nation keep getting in trouble for guns – whether they’re made of plastic, formed by fingers or even fashioned from Pop-Tarts – but some experts say having “zero tolerance” for games children have played for centuries is turning the adults into bullies and backfiring on kids.

Elementary educators trying to discourage children from settling pretend beefs with pretend guns is nothing new. But in the aftermath of the Connecticut school shooting, and with the grownups increasingly polarized over the Second Amendment, rules for recess, on the bus and in the classroom have become stricter than ever.

Some say too strict.

“These zero-tolerance policies are psychotic, in the strict sense of the word: psychotic means ‘out of touch with reality,’” Dr. Leonard Sax, a Pennsylvania psychologist and family physician, and author of “Boys Adrift,” told


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In recent months, there have been several examples of children being disciplined for what was once seen as innocent role play.

A group of students was suspended this month from a Washington state elementary school for using Nerf dart guns as part of a math lesson, despite having permission from their teacher.

In March, second-grader Josh Welch was suspended from a Maryland elementary school after unknowingly biting a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun.

"I just kept on biting it and biting it and tore off the top of it, and it kind of looked like a gun," Welch told a local Fox affiliate.

Last month, also in Maryland, a 5-year-old boy who brought an orange-tipped cap gun onto his Calvert County school bus was suspended for 10 days, according to his family and a lawyer. The child was grilled for more than two hours by a school principal and wet himself, according to his family.

Girls have been swept up in the phenomenon as well. In January, a fifth-grade student in Philadelphia broke down in tears after being scolded in front of her classmates for accidentally bringing to school a piece of paper that was folded into the shape of a gun and given to her by her grandfather. And a 6-year-old South Carolina girl was expelled after bringing a toy gun to school.

Sax said he worries about the long-term effect, particularly on boys, of being told the games they play make them bad.

“Out-of-touch policies such as these, which criminalize behaviors which have always been common among young kids, are contributing to the growing proportion of American kids, especially boys, who regard school as a stupid waste of time and who can’t wait to get out of school so that they can get back to playing their video games,” Sax said.

Dr. Dan Kindlon, a child psychology professor at Harvard University who specializes in behavioral problems of children and adolescents, said school administrators have a strong basis for delivering the anti-gun message to kids.

“It would seem to be an overreaction to discipline a 6-year-old for pretending his finger is a gun barrel, but I am sure that the specter of Sandy Hook, Columbine, et cetera, haunts the dreams of many school administrators,” said Kindlon.

Sax doesn’t disagree, but said those school administrators should get their point across in a less heavy-handed way.

“There are more effective ways to encourage good behavior and to discourage criminal behavior, without disengaging boys from school altogether,” Sax said.

A Hayward, Calif., elementary school is planning a toy gun exchange for later this month, modeled after the exchanges law enforcement authorities hold to collect real guns. Kids who hand in the play weapons will get a book and a raffle ticket for a bicycle. Strobridge Elementary Principal Charles Hill said he hopes rounding up the toy guns will stop kids from growing up to play with real ones.

“Playing with toy guns, saying ‘I’m going to shoot you,’ desensitizes them, so as they get older, it’s easier for them to use a real gun,” Hill told the Mercury News.

While the toy gun trade-in may be a more reasonable way to address the issue than suspending or expelling children, Yih-Chau Chang, spokesman for Responsible Citizens of California, said kids can handle make-believe games, even if their educators can't.

"Having a group of children playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians is a normal part of growing up,” Chang said.