An 8-year-old boy in Prince William County pointed his finger like a gun in a school hallway after a friend pretended to shoot him with a bow and arrow. The class had been studying Native American culture and had just learned a deer-hunting song.
“It was playing — it was cowboys and Indians,” said the second-grader’s father.
The imaginary crossfire on Feb. 8 produced real-life fallout two months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The boy was suspended for “threatening to harm self or others,” a misdeed on par with bringing an actual weapon to school. He served an in-school suspension Wednesday.
Such episodes are gaining new attention since the mass shooting in Connecticut, which claimed the lives of 20 children and six staff members. As schools take extra security steps, sensitivity about threats and intruders and guns — even pretend guns — is heightened.
Experts say this kind of reaction also followed the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, and some worry zero-tolerance policies, with inflexible punishments, will make a comeback, too, after a period of easing up.
Locally, several cases involving young children suggest school leaders may be cracking down on behavior that once might have been considered harmless play-acting or cause for minor consequences. Three days before the Prince William case, a 10-year-old in Alexandria was arrested for allegedly showing an orange-tipped toy gun from a dollar store to other students on a school bus.
Such suspensions or expulsions can permanently mar a student’s record and label them as troublemakers — or, when arrests are made, even criminals.
“There was no threat, which is the part I can’t fathom — that my son is going to have this in his file for playing,” said the Prince William boy’s father, who said the family is appealing in hopes of getting the offense expunged from school records.
Increased concern after Sandy Hook also has contributed to a spike in requests from Prince William County school officials for threat assessments of students.
“It’s a Catch-22 for schools,” said Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director of the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at Johns Hopkins University. “They don’t want to overreact, but they don’t want to turn a blind eye to what they should be concerned about.”
Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that works on the issue nationally, said there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that schools are ratcheting up discipline.
“Clearly, we’re post-Newtown,” Dianis said. “We’re seeing more school districts rushing to hire more police, and we’re seeing a rise in the number of incidents of school discipline that puts common sense to the side.”
Inside schools, many educators agree there is increased awareness, but they say good judgment is being used.
“I don’t see us as overreacting. I see us as being more sensitive,” said Kimberly Carter, a middle school teacher in Montgomery County. Especially with young adolescents, the key is “knowing when to coach them and when to discipline them,” she said.
Sandy Hook also clarified the importance of collaboration, Carter said. Now, if she observed troubling behavior, she would make sure to share her it with colleagues. “One teacher might know something another teacher doesn’t,” she said.
In Prince William County, where the boy recently pointed his finger like a gun, schools spokesman Phil Kavits said rules have been consistent. “I think our principals and our teachers are continuing to follow our regulations in an appropriate manner,” he said.
Kavits said the district could not comment on the second-grader’s suspension at Minnieville Elementary in Woodbridge. But he said that “regulations that are well known were applied with discretion by the principal in a way that reflected the ongoing nature of the situation.”
The boy’s parents say they were not told of ongoing problems and, had they known, they would have spoken with their child. The boy’s father said gun gestures are inappropriate, but a better solution, for that age, would have been teaching the child and perhaps a timeout, “if it even warranted that.”
His attorney, Robin Ficker, who has had three such cases since Sandy Hook, said one common feature is the serious language used in school reports to describe childish mistakes. The records will “travel alongside these children for the next many years,” he said. Even after Sandy Hook, he said, school leaders “need to maintain some objectivity.”
One of the first high-profile cases in the Washington area came just days after the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook.