EDITORIAL: Assembly bill addresses schools’ ‘zero tolerance’ overreach

The state shouldn’t need laws that mandate common sense. But the ridiculous overreach of “zero tolerance” school rules that fail to distinguish between toy weapons and real ones, between make believe and real threats, between first graders and teenagers, has forced the Nevada Legislature to bypass school boards in pursuit of a badly needed statewide disciplinary policy.

Last week, the Legislature was close to passing Assembly Bill 121; it had passed the Assembly and the Senate Education Committee and was awaiting a final vote from the full Senate. AB121 would prohibit school officials from punishing students in the first through eighth grades who simulate using a gun or weapon while playing; wear clothes that depict weapons or express opinions about weapons but do not cause a substantial school disruption; play with a toy weapon 2 inches long or smaller (think action figure guns); play with weapons made of Legos or other snap-together blocks; use a finger or hand to simulate a weapon; draw a picture of a weapon or possess a picture of a weapon; use a pen or pencil to simulate a weapon; or eat a pastry or other piece of food into the shape of a weapon.

The last provision was written to address the suspension of a 7-year-old Baltimore boy who chewed a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. In fact, every provision addresses cases where schools suspended small children for engaging in imaginative play. A 6-year-old Massachusetts boy was put in detention for having a gun from a Lego set that was slightly larger than a quarter. Students across the country have been suspended for using their hands and fingers to simulate a gun or for drawing pictures of guns.

This isn’t exclusively a boy issue. In 2013, a Pennsylvania school suspended a 5-year-old girl for making a “terrorist threat” — with a Hello Kitty bubble gun. The kindergartner was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation as part of her punishment.

“Zero tolerance” policies prevent educators from doing what they’re trained to do: exercise judgment and treat students as individuals. If an eighth-grader passes a note to a fellow student with a picture of a knife and the words, “You’re dead,” it’s very different from 6-year-olds playing cops and robbers, using their hands as guns and shouting, “Bang, bang! You’re dead!” Inflexible discipline can cause great psychological harm to children who are severely punished when they haven’t hurt anyone. Such overreaction does nothing to make elementary and middle schools safer from real gun violence.

We wish the bill went a bit further and covered squirt guns as well. But, as written, AB121 is a reasonable approach to unreasonable school discipline that brings unnecessary stress to students and families. The Legislature should pass AB121, and Gov. Brian Sandoval should sign it into law.

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