- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The Calvert County Board of Education will be reviewing the case of a 5-year-old Dowell Elementary School student who was suspended for bringing a toy cap gun to school last month, after the boy’s family filed for an appeal to expunge the incident from his school record.
The kindergartner’s suspension was lessened from 10 days to three days, but he still has a record that states he brought a lookalike gun to school. His family recently announced plans to appeal that decision through the school board, but an appeal date is unknown.
“I’m not comfortable with anything like that on his record,” said the boy’s mother, an employee of the school system who wished to remain anonymous to protect the boy’s privacy. “He shouldn’t have the burden of carrying this for the rest of his school career. This needs to be taken off his record so he can move forward and put this behind him.”
Joe Chenelly, a member of the board of education, said he will not rest on this case until he is “satisfied that students are being treated fairly and parents are contacted promptly.”
“If it’s serious enough for a 10-day suspension, it’s serious,” Chenelly said.
Chenelly said the board will not be able to decide on the matter until its next meeting July 11.
On May 22, at approximately 8:30 a.m., the boy was on his morning bus ride to school when he pulled out the toy gun to show to a friend, according to the discipline referral. The principal, Jennifer Young, told the boy’s mother the boy pointed the plastic, cowboy-style toy gun at another student and pretended to shoot. The boy and his first-grade sister deny this happened, according to the boy’s mother.
The boy was taken to the main office, where he was questioned by the principal and other authorities, according to a Calvert County Public Schools release. The press release from the school system reports the questioning only took place for five to seven minutes. At 10:50 a.m., the boy’s mother was notified of what was happening. The boy’s father, who is listed as the first emergency contact because he works closer to the boy’s school, was never called, according to the boy’s mother.
“If this was being taken so seriously, why was there no call to the parents for two and a half hours?” the boy’s mother said. “Did it take [the principal] that long to decide it was serious?”
According to the boy’s mother, her son and daughter felt uncomfortable when they were being questioned. The boy uncharacteristically wet himself while in the office.
Chenelly said he thinks there needs to be revisions to the Student Code of Conduct illustrating how long an investigation can go on with the student, a time frame for parent contact and age restrictions taken into account.
“My expectation is that each situation will be handled on a case-by-case basis,” Chenelly said. “I would want to see how it is that a 5-year-old would benefit from out-of-school suspension.”
According to the Calvert County Public Schools 2013-2014 Student Code of Conduct, weapons include any object which is a lookalike weapon, even though it is incapable of operation, and a student may be suspended for any action that is considered disruptive and/or detrimental to the operation of the school. If the offense is serious or illegal in nature, it may warrant a suspension on the first offense.
If the principal determines that a student has a weapon in his or her possession, the principal has a right to suspend the student from school for 10 days, according to the code. The principal determines when a student should be suspended and the length of the suspension. The student is given an opportunity to learn what he or she is accused of doing and given the chance to explain, and the principal should make every reasonable effort to notify the parent or guardian by telephone.
“Nationally, we’re having a lot of problems with school security, so people are sensitive to this now,” said Eugene Karol, school board president. “It’s important that we look into the matter and what our policies say. It’s an unfortunate situation overall.”
According to Robin Ficker, the family’s attorney, a judge in Maryland court will not hear testimony from a 5-year-old because children of that age are presumed unable to form the intent of committing acts with malicious intent.
“This was a situation of cops and robbers, except the principal was playing the cop and making the kid out to be the robber,” Ficker said.
Ficker said he has received calls from every major news station in the district and from national news shows. He said he suggested the family interview with one of the shows to broadcast the case further and influence the board to drop the incident from the boy’s record. The family has decided not to do this to protect their privacy.
According to Ficker, the child’s age should have been taken into consideration. He said it was not right to give a 5-year-old the same punishment an older child would have received.
“There’s a big difference between a 5-year-old and a 15-year-old,” Ficker said.
Ficker and the boy’s mother both said the principal should have sat down with the boy and explained to him why bringing a toy gun to school was not acceptable. Instead of suspending the boy from school, they said, the principal, the board and any other school officials should have chosen to educate the boy in a school setting.
“Even once the principal made a decision that it was, in her opinion, a lookalike gun, she still had behavior consequence options and chose the most severe,” the boy’s mother said.
“We don’t want [the kids] to be zombies. We want them to expand horizons for the human race and in Calvert County — to be imaginative and adventurous, not halted of what they’re thinking,” Ficker said. “That’s what a school environment is for — to encourage robust discussion of the issues.”
Ficker is also working for the family of an Anne Arundel County second-grader suspended from school for nibbling a pastry into the shape of a gun. The school denied the appeal to have the incident expunged from his record, and Ficker is now taking the matter to the county school board.
Chenelly said all of the Calvert school board members have expressed concern about the cap gun incident. Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith, board of education Vice President Kelly McConkey and board member Tracy McGuire declined to comment on the case because of the upcoming appeal, stating they must remain objective about the case until all facts are presented to them in the appeal.
Board member Dawn Balinski was not available for comment by press time.