Teachers and school administrators have never had an easy job. They work in a fishbowl and get blamed for not being perfect. And for not improving on the existing perfection of our children. In an effort to be tolerant and understanding, I try to avoid attacking educators.
But sometimes I just can't resist. Cases of apparent early dementia among educators in the public schools keep popping up in the news, and while I know there's often more rational thought behind the scenes than gets credit on the front page, some cases defy common sense.
Mary Blair Elementary School in Denver has a couple of firm rules: No fighting, real or pretend, and no weapons, real or pretend. You might, like me, have been a child when schoolyard fighting was about as common as breathing, but we all have to change with the times. You might also, like me, have been a child when the country was involved in total and widely supported war, so that kids not only brought realistic toy guns to school, we conducted mock attacks, shouting "pow, pow" and "boom, boom" on the playground during recess. That, of course, would be unthinkable today.
At Mary Blair, seven-year-old Alex Evans imagined there was a box full of "evil forces" shaking and moving and threatening the world. Alex threw an imaginary grenade in the imaginary box, making the appropriate "pshhh" sounds he thought the grenade would make. He was suspended from school. Both he and his mother were astonished that he was suspended for trying to save the world.
In Pennsylvania, a five-year-old girl waiting for the school bus told another child she was planning to shoot her with a bubble gun, although the gun was not present. School officials allegedly interrogated her for some three hours, charged her with "making terroristic threats," and suspended her for 10 days. After complaints, the charge was reduced to "threatening to harm another student," and the suspension was reduced to two days. But before she could return to school, she had to submit to psychological testing.
In Philadelphia, a fifth-grade girl brought to school a piece of paper that had been torn and folded to look like a pistol. Looking at the photo I saw of it, you would have to sort of half-close your eyes and imagine, but it could have been a vague representation of a semi-automatic handgun. She threw it in the waste basket, but another student saw it and told the teacher. (Yes, that's one thing about schools that apparently hasn't changed.) The teacher allegedly publicly yelled at and threatened the child, saying he should call the police and that she should be arrested. The girl's mother was keeping her at home since the incident and planned to enroll her in a different school. Let's hope she finds one where they check for brains among applicants for employment.
Shortly after the Newtown slayings, a six-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, made the traditional gun symbol with his thumb and forefinger, pointed at another student, and said "pow." That bought him a one-day suspension. School officials said he'd been guilty of a similar incident and warned earlier that day, but no one had been notified.
Have we lost our minds? Is there no longer any room in this frightened, uptight, gun-sick country for common sense and moderation? I'm beginning to think that, instead of all these suspensions, we should bring back mandatory use of the paddle. Not for the children -- for school administrators who act irrationally.
I fully understand the current impulse to operate by rules designed to protect our children. But I have to wonder if the excessive antipathy toward firearms, and even children play-acting when it involves guns, will eventually lead to a society where those who protect us with such weapons will be pariahs, necessary but shunned by polite society. "Yes, Johnny, there are people called 'police' and 'soldiers'. But nice American children do better things than that. After all, those people carry (shudder) guns! We outsource those jobs to China."
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."