School Climate & Safety

Justices Decline Case of Pupil Disciplined Over Imaginary Gun

By Caroline Hendrie — January 21, 2004 3 min read
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Washington

The U.S. Supreme Court last week turned away an appeal by a father who challenged the suspension of his 5-year-old for threatening to shoot an imaginary gun during recess in what has been widely described as a game of “cops and robbers.”

In a ruling last June, a federal appeals court rejected claims that the disciplinary action by the principal of Wilson Elementary School in Sayreville, N.J., violated the kindergartner’s constitutional rights to free expression and due process of the law.

The boy, identified in court papers as A.G., was suspended for three days in 2000 shortly after a kindergartner in Flint, Mich., shot a classmate to death, and within a week of three separate incidents at Wilson Elementary in which pupils received similar punishments for talking about using guns.

The Sayreville case attracted widespread media coverage, much of it questioning whether schools around the country were overreacting to threats by students in the wake of the deadly shooting rampage at Columbine High School in 1999.

Five days before A.G. was suspended, Wilson Principal Georgia B. Baumann had cautioned youngsters against any threats of violence and sent home a letter warning that the school would take very seriously any such threats.

The boy was out sick that day, however, so he had missed the principal’s warnings. The parents weren’t able to explain that to Ms. Baumann following the recess incident because she acted without talking to them, after failing to reach them by telephone, according to court papers. The parents later asked the superintendent to intervene, but he backed the principal.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled unanimously that school officials had acted within their authority and rejected as “tenuous” the idea that A.G. and the other three kindergartners suspended with him engaged in protected speech. The father, identified in court papers as S.G. and represented by the Charlottesville, Va.- based Rutherford Institute, appealed to the high court in S.G. v. Sayreville Board of Education (Case No. 03-441).

Licensing Pacifism?

The appeal argued that the lower court had misconstrued Supreme Court precedents establishing that school officials may discipline students for certain types of offensive speech as part of their mandate to teach “socially appropriate behavior.”

“Such a view of socially inappropriate speech encompasses a child who wishes to discuss deer hunting or expresses a desire to shoot Osama Bin Laden,” the appeal argued, referring to the 3rd Circuit court’s interpretation. “The prohibition promulgated by the educators in this case could be used to press an agenda of pacifism at a time when American soldiers are being killed in faraway lands.”

But lawyers for the 5,700-student Sayreville district dismissed such claims as an “attempt to convert the mundane to the extraordinary.”

“Following this logic ... kindergarten teachers should likewise refrain from requiring children to sit quietly in their seats, avoid shooting spitballs, or calling each other names at the risk of indoctrinating pacifism,” the district argued in court papers.

Dennis Fyffe, Sayreville’s superintendent, last week praised the principal’s handling of the matter, and said the kindergartners’ behavior “was not a cops-and-robbers game” and involved “threatening statements.”

But John W. Whitehead, the president of the Rutherford Institute, said that “the facts are really clear in the case. It was boys out on the playground pointing their fingers saying, ‘I’m going to shoot you.’”

The Supreme Court on Jan. 12 declined without comment to hear the appeal.

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2004 edition of Education Week as Justices Decline Case of Pupil Disciplined Over Imaginary Gun

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