As useless as the practice may be, anti-gun crusaders typically love a gun turn-in, even those aimed at toy guns. Yet in this week’s example of zero-tolerance zealotry, even that act was cause for punishment.
On Wednesday, June 4, seven-year-old first grader Darin Simak was at Martin Elementary School in New Kensington, Pa., when he discovered that he had accidentally brought a toy six shooter, complete with bright orange tip, with him in his backpack. The innocent mistake was the result of Darin’s mother, Jennifer Mathabel, resorting to a spare backpack after Darin had left his usual bag with a friend the previous evening. Ms. Mathabel failed to realize that the toy was in one of the backup bag’s pockets.
When he discovered the mistake, Darin alerted a teacher so he could turn in the toy. The teacher responded by notifying school administrators, who immediately suspended Darin.
When contacted by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, New Kensington-Arnold School District officials refused to discuss the incident and directed the reporter to the school’s “weapons” policy, which typically calls for expulsion. Banned items, according to the report, “shall include but not be limited to any knife, cutting instrument, cutting tool, nanchaku (sic), firearm, shotgun, rifle, replication of a weapon, and/or any other tool, instrument, or implement capable of inflicting serious body harm.”
Despite Darin’s suspension, Mathabel sent her child to school the following day. As she explained to Pittsburgh television station WTAE, she told the principal, “I'm sending him to school because he is entitled to be in school and be educated.” The administrators, however, simply assigned Darin to in-school suspension until his father, Chris Simak, picked him up.
With regard to the school’s handling of the incident, Simak stated, “[Darin] did the right thing, and we're trying to teach him the right way… and now they're teaching him the wrong way.”
A follow-up report by the Tribune-Review recounts that during a disciplinary hearing involving Darin’s parents and school officials on Friday, June 6, Superintendent John Pallone determined that the seven-year-old’s two days of suspension were sufficient punishment. Darin was allowed to return to classes the following Monday to complete the last day of school. In the penal system, which schools like Martin Elementary increasingly resemble, they refer to such a disposition as “time served.”
This latest incident, along with numerous others, demonstrates how zero-tolerance policies are regularly employed in instances involving objects, images, messages, and circumstances which pose no threat to the safety of students or faculty. In Darin’s case, even blamelessness in bringing the object to school and attempting to correct the mistake were irrelevant.
Cases like this are why NRA has been working with state legislators to reform school zero-tolerance policies. Earlier this year, for example, the Florida legislature passed HB 7029 by wide margins in both chambers. Nicknamed the “Right to be a Kid” Act or the “Pop-Tart” Bill, the legislation encourages a more thoughtful approach to handling incidents involving what has historically been recognized as perfectly normal, harmless behavior for elementary-aged children.
Meanwhile, as Darin’s sad tale illustrates, no child can be considered innocent, and even a parent’s innocent oversight will be visited upon their offspring, where the iron-fisted rule of zero tolerance remains in effect.