Nebraska family, school at odds over deaf boy’s ‘gun-like’ sign language name

The parents of a 3-year-old deaf boy from Nebraska say his preschool told them he must change the way he signs his name because it looks like a finger-pistol, but the school says the family has their signals crossed.

The family of pre-schooler Hunter Spanjer said officials at the Grand Island Public Schools told them the manner in which the boy signs his name is a violation of its “weapons in school” policy. The claim they were told Hunter had to modify the way he signs his moniker to comply with the school's zero tolerance code against weapons in school.

“Anybody that I have talked to thinks this is absolutely ridiculous,” Hunter’s grandmother, Janet Logue, told KGIN. “This is not threatening in any way.”

Brian Spanjer, the boy’s father, said the sign is a registered symbol with the Signing Exact English system. The encouragement and support his family has received since reports of the controversy have surfaced has been “amazing,” he said.

"It's been more than I could have asked for and it's been extremely helpful,” Spanjer told KGIN.

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Grand Island Public Schools officials declined to discuss the case, but issued a statement to in which they denied requiring any student to change how his or her name is signed.

“The school district teaches American Sign Language (“ASL”) for students with hearing impairments,” the statement read. “ASL is recommended by the Nebraska Department of Education and is widely used in the United States. The sign language techniques taught in the school district are consistent with the standards of the Nebraska Department of Education and ASL.”

The statement continued: “The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits the school district from disclosing personally identifiable information concerning any student without the prior written consent of the student’s parent. Therefore, the school district cannot discuss any particular student or identify any particular student. Grand Island Public Schools is not requiring any current student with a hearing impairment to change his or her sign language name.”

Jack Sheard, a spokesman for the district, said district officials — who have reportedly received hundreds of angry phone calls, emails and even death threats — are working with Spanjer’s family.

The American Civil Liberties Union has reportedly gotten involved in the case, sending a letter to the school calling it a question of a students’ form of chosen speech. Also, the National Association of the Deaf has offered to help the Spanjer family press its case in court if the school district tries to make Hunter change the way he signs his name, said CEO Howard Rosenblum.

“The NAD is not aware of any other schools that have banned a name sign,” read a statement released by the organization. “Grand Island Public Schools is likely the first to ever to do so. It would be inappropriate for Grand Island Public Schools to prohibit a person from another country to use in school their own name which they deemed offensive.”

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