Monday, May 24, 1999

Parents must send 7-year-old back to school

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two images from the same TV newscast keep replaying in my mind. In the one, a student gunman from Conyers, Ga., gives up after shooting six of his high school classmates. In the other, a 7-year-old, second-grade girl from Fairfield West Elementary School cuddles a white kitten.

        These images should not be connected in any way, shape or form. One depicts pure horror. The other shows a peaceful sweetness.

        But these images are linked because we live in a world where every week seems to bring another round of school shootings.

        Schools are working to prevent these tragedies. Like a number of school districts, Fairfield has established a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to disruptive behavior or bringing weapons to school. That means the maximum punishment each time. No exceptions. The little girl who likes to cuddle her white kitten and her parents ran up against the district's zero-tolerance policy last week. (The Cincinnati Enquirer is not naming her because she's so young.)

        The girl was expelled from school last week for bringing a cap gun onto her school bus.

        Fairfield school officials expelled the girl for at least the remainder of the school year and possibly for as long as 80 days. The girl's mother told me the school system overreacted. “It was only an old toy gun. It was all rusty. It couldn't hurt anyone.”

        The school district's expulsion officer, John Crothers, said the toy gun looked too much like a real gun and caused real fears among the children on the bus. That's why it fell under the zero-tolerance policy.

        Mr. Crothers also told me the little girl could have been back in school a day after she brought the gun on the bus. All her parents had to do was have a psychologist or psychiatrist evaluate the girl and confirm she's not a violent kid.

        “Once we receive that in writing, the girl can come back to school,” Mr. Crothers said.

        Fairfield schools were not singling out this little girl. Since the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo., the Fairfield district has asked 51 sets of parents to have their children evaluated after the students violated the zero-tolerance policy.

        “Only one set said no,” Mr. Crothers said.

        So I asked the girl's mother why she declined. She said her daughter didn't do anything wrong to merit an evaluation. “It's not like she took a cap gun and held it to the bus driver's head. Why put her through the trauma of talking to a doctor?”

        I can appreciate the mother's anger. But I think it's time to get the little girl back in school and be mad later. There is more damage in missing 80 days of school than in an interview with a psychologist.

        Joseph Zins is a University of Cincinnati psychologist who works with children in public schools. He likens going back to class after being expelled “to coming back after a long-term hospitalization. Kids have trouble working back into their groups of friends and participating in class.”

        Again, I understand why the little girl's parents resent the application of the zero-tolerance policy. A cap gun is, on one level, not a weapon. The second-grader's mother already grounded her for two weeks. She feels that's punishment enough.

        But no one who has been reading the news the past month can escape the horrible context of Littleton and now Conyers. Mention “gun” and “school” in the same sentence — toy gun or not — and the fear of what can happen demands zero tolerance.

        I hope the little girl's parents can set aside their anger and consider the other parents and 691 students at Fairfield West Elementary.

        If toy guns are allowed, the fears go, then real guns may not be far behind. Students may not know the difference or fail to report guns to the teachers. And if anything bad happened involving a real gun, hundreds of parents would demand to know why more wasn't done to protect their children.

        The little girl's parents can continue to make their point. They can ask for changes in the school district's zero-tolerance policy. They can even take the district to court.

        But first, get that little 7-year-old who likes to cuddle her kitten back in school. Let her get on with her precious life without wasting any more days in this legal wrangling.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.