Sunday, May 23, 1999

A loud cheer for intolerance in our schools

The Cincinnati Enquirer


        I was bitterly disappointed in my school that first day. I had understood that someone there would teach me to read, and no one did. My mother persuaded me to give it another chance. She claimed she'd heard good things about my teacher.

        Her information, as usual, was right on the money.

        One of my fondest memories is one of Mrs. Winegardner scraping mud off my new saddle shoes with a Popsicle stick after an unfortunate hour on the playground. When I stuck a crayon up my nose, she let me go to the nurse's office. No questions asked.

        But she would not tolerate disruptions or gum chewing. Our parents were on her side in these matters. She knew it. We knew it.

Peer pressure
        My old school, Washington McKinley Elementary in Lima, Ohio, still looks pretty much as it did when Mrs. Winegardner was wielding the pitch pipe. Inside, the desks are good, old wood. They've been refinished. Many times.

        Last week, students there traded 100 toy weapons for gift certificates for food or a different toy. Better than that, principal Jean Snyder says it “was a chance for parents and teachers to talk with the children about weapons and violence.”

        Kids also signed a pledge not to bring guns to school, not to use violence to settle disputes and to “use their influence with friends” to encourage them to avoid violence. “If you hold hands together, it's amazing what you can do,” Ms. Snyder says.

        On the same day kids in Lima's inner city were being taught this lesson, a second-grader at Fairfield West Elementary School was expelled for bringing a toy cap gun on a school bus. Her mother was enraged. She created fliers, trying to whip up support for her protest at a school board meeting. The child's mother says the school district's zero-tolerance policy should be more flexible.

        “For them to make an example of a 7-year-old on the zero-tolerance policy is ridiculous,” the child's mother said. She refused to provide a psychological evaluation to the school. “All we want is a letter to the district saying this is a nonviolent child,” the district's expulsion officer John “Les” Crothers said.

        He told The Enquirer's Sue Kiesewetter that in recent weeks as many as 45 parents have been asked to provide psychological evaluations after similar offenses. And they have quietly complied.

An innocent cowgirl
        It must be tough to have a nice little kid who is being penalized because some other kids — not so nice — have brought guns — not so innocent — into schools and killed people with them. Every time I walk through the metal detector at the airport, every time I have to throw my innocent purse on the conveyor belt, I regret the violence that makes this necessary.

        But I am hoping that nobody in an airport where I'm getting on a plane will decide to be “flexible.”

        The little girl's gun, according to school officials, looked real. Kids on her bus thought it was real enough to holler and hide under their seats when they saw it.

        Times have changed. Every Christmas until I was 10, I got a cap gun and a holster. I wanted a pony, but pretending to be Dale Evans was the consolation prize. We former cowboys and cowgirls know our cap guns were harmless. We also remember the privilege of blowing our fingers off with firecrackers and spewing smoke in the faces of our fellow diners at fine restaurants.

        As we grow, we learn. The lessons come from as near as Lima and as far away as Littleton and Jonesboro and Conyers. There are too many guns. They are too lethal. They are too easy to get. And they are winding up in the hands of children.

        Flexible? Let's be flexible about allowing kids to wear weird hairdos and sloppy jeans. Let's be absolutely inflexible about safety and intolerant about guns.

        Otherwise, we haven't learned a thing.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at The author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio and NPR's Morning Edition.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at