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Toy Guns Target of Stricter Disciplinary Policies

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As schools try to curb the increasing threat of weapons on campus, more educators are deciding that "zero tolerance'' starts early: with elementary school students who bring toy or mock guns to school.

"More of those [toy] weapons are coming to school this year than ever before,'' said Janet Short, the principal of Maurice J. Tobin Elementary School in Boston.

School policies on toy weapons, some of them new or stricter this year, vary widely, with some districts suspending students for carrying any toy weapon--even those that are obviously playthings.

The need to deal strictly even with young children who bring toy weapons to school is clear, officials who defend the practice say, given the level of gun violence in the United States and the number of firearms incidents in schools.

Larry W. Faison, the spokesman for the Boston public schools, argued that children's use of toy guns lies at one end of a continuum with the use of real guns.

"That toy today can become a loaded gun tomorrow, and somehow we have to make that understanding to our young people at an early age,'' Mr. Faison said.

Squirt-Gun Suspension

One case that recently caught the attention of the news media involved a 7-year-old Boston girl who was suspended for having a small water pistol on a school bus. The 2nd grader's mother had made public the girl's punishment after enrolling her in another school.

The girl, and two other students who had played with the squirt gun, were suspended for three days and told to undergo psychological evaluations.

Judith Prince, the principal of Dennis C. Haley School in Boston, where the girl had been going to school, defended the punishment as district policy.

"The whole point was not to have anything that was a mock weapon in school or on the school bus,'' she said. "We don't want kids to get comfortable playing with guns.'' Ms. Prince said she has suspended other students this spring for having toy guns.

In Oak Park Elementary School District 97 in Oak Park, Ill., the "zero tolerance'' weapons policy says that any student with a toy that is perceived as a real gun will be suspended and have a hearing before the superintendent.

In February, a 9-year-old 3rd grader was suspended for 10 days, the maximum allowed, because the boy brought a cap gun to school and threatened another student with it, Superintendent John Fagan said.

Not every case in the 5,200-student district is referred for suspension, he said; a brightly colored squirt gun might get no punishment. But, he said, a pellet gun "looks very, very real. That's an easy call to make.''

While some parents agree with the idea of strict discipline for toy-gun possession, others take issue with some schools' policies.

Going Too Far?

"At the elementary level, if it's clearly a toy gun, I think it's going too far in suspending the child,'' said Hattie McKinnis, the executive director of Boston's Citywide Parents Council. A more appropriate punishment, she said, would be "talking to them and explaining to them the reason why'' having a toy gun in school is wrong.

"Losing school days over a toy gun is not educationally sound,'' Ms. McKinnis argued.

In Nashville, after the accidental shooting death of a child, schools announced that anything resembling a weapon was prohibited. The next week, Donna Clemons's 9-year-old son, Zachary Ross, was suspended for five days for wearing a 1-inch replica of a gun on a necklace.

Ms. Clemons, who is the president of the parent-teacher association at Glengarry Elementary School, says parents have not been notified in writing about the new policy. She called the punishment a "knee-jerk reaction.''

Ms. Clemons said that although she is eager to have safe schools, she is upset that there was no educational component to her son's punishment to "make sure the child understood'' why he was disciplined.

To try to stem the use of toy guns, some schools and parents are sponsoring events similar to "buy back'' or trade-in programs for real guns.

Toy Trade-Ins

In Los Angeles in April, Malabar Elementary School's student council gave students cookies in exchange for their toy weapons.

In Hackensack, N.J., a parent at Nellie K. Parker Elementary School recently sponsored a weapons turn-in, donating $2 per toy to the school's P.T.A. The drive raised about $600, which was spent on a self-esteem program for students.

At Ms. Short's Tobin School in Boston last month, a weeklong buy-back yielded 300 toy weapons, including guns, knives, and a plastic crossbow. The children received yo-yos, kites, and jump ropes in return.

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