The shooting of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in Newtown, Conn., just before Christmas has reignited the debate about guns and violence in America. But the problem with trying to tackle a complex issue in reaction to a horrific event is that too often we end up making symbolic gestures — and sometimes those gestures end up doing as much harm as good. A prime example is the recent suspension of a six-year-old boy from a public school in Silver Spring, Md. His offense? He pointed his index finger at another child and said, "Pow."
The school claims that the boy was actually threatening to shoot the other child. Maryland schools have a zero-tolerance policy that treats any offense that can be deemed violent as cause for suspension. Maryland is simply following a nationwide trend in which children, even very young children, can be punished with suspension for what are essentially harmless acts.
In its defense, the school claims that an assistant principal spoke with the boy earlier in the school year about "the inappropriateness of using objects to make shooting gestures." Really? You have to wonder if this person has ever spent 15 minutes around a group of young boys.
In the early 1970s, when my first son was about three or four years old, I remember deciding that I would limit his exposure to toys that I thought would encourage aggression. No guns, G.I. Joes or similar toys could be found among his playthings. Instead, I bought him wood blocks, Legos, plastic animal farms and the like, hoping to increase his creativity and discourage any aggressive tendencies.
I soon discovered that his favorite building activity was to create tall towers with his blocks in order to knock them down, scattering pieces far and wide. As for his Lego set, he learned quickly how to put the pieces together to make a colorful plastic object that resembled a pistol, with which he would run around the house shouting, "Bam, bam, bam." As for the farmyard set, it gathered dust in the corner when the poor animals weren't being used as props in the skyscraper demolitions.
By the time he was five, I'd given up on the idea I could turn nature on its head by restricting access to certain toys. Boys will be boys — and that's not a bad thing. He soon had a full complement of toy soldiers, plastic guns, bows and arrows and other toys that wouldn't pass muster with the Maryland public school system. By the time my next two sons came along, I'd abandoned my silly notions of social engineering. All three boys grew up to be responsible, caring adults.
A Washington Post study of suspensions of elementary school children in the Washington, D.C. region, found more than 6,000 children from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade who had been suspended. Among these, 50 were in pre-kindergarten, 433 were in kindergarten, 677 were in first grade, 813 in second grade, and 1,086 in third grade. Many of these children either ended up spending days at home with little supervision or accompanying parents to work, according to the study.
And the "offenses" that booted these kids out of school temporarily included behavior as normal and unthreatening as one kindergartener kicking off his shoes and crying in frustration. In Fairfax, a neighboring suburban school system in Virginia, a student was suspended for possession of a controlled substance when he inadvertently placed prescription medication in his shirt pocket and then took it during a break. Surely, such behavior does not warrant a child being kept out of school for days.
It is as if schools have lost common sense and judgment. It's one thing to remove a child, even a very young one, who becomes physically violent and cannot control his or her behavior, therefore interfering with the ability of other kids in the classroom to learn. But it is another thing for a child to bring actual weapons to school or to use physical objects to threaten or harm other students. And it is a very different thing to point a finger and say "pow."
Such overreaction not only won't prevent further Newtown massacres from taking place, it will make it more difficult to teach children the difference between real aggression and mere playfulness. We won't be safer, just more confused on how to prevent actual violence.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.