Hearing examiner rules against boy who chewed his pastry into a gun shape

A hearing examiner affirmed the suspension of an Anne Arundel County boy who chewed his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun in what many have come to know as “the Pop-Tart case.”

In a 30-page opinion, hearing examiner Andrew W. Nussbaum supported a principal’s assertion that the suspension was based on a history of problems, not the pastry episode. “The evidence is clear that suspension is used as a last resort,” Nussbaum wrote.

The boy’s family asked to have his school records cleared of the incident, which occurred early last year, when he was 7 years old and in second grade. The findings and recommendation will go to the county Board of Education for a decision.

The case dates to a time of heightened sensitivity to guns after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. The boy’s punishment drew national attention and was one of several D.C.-area suspensions involving imaginary or toy guns.

In Anne Arundel, the boy’s disciplinary referral used the word “gun” four times, asserting that the child “chewed his cereal bar into the shape of a gun” and aimed it at other children. The document quoted the boy as yelling, “Look, I made a gun!” It cited classroom disruption as the primary reason for the suspension, and an administrator noted several previous incidents of disruptive behavior near the bottom of the form.

In Nussbaum’s opinion, dated June 26, he rejected arguments from the boy’s family that the school overreacted and that the suspension arose from a bias against guns. The father said he was told the day that the boy was suspended that it was for playing as if he had a gun, not for ongoing problems.

Nussbaum wrote: “As much as the parents want this case to be about a ‘gun,’ it is, rather, a case about classroom disruption from a student who has had a long history of disruptive behavior and for whom the school had attempted a list of other strategies and interventions before resorting to a suspension.”

Nussbaum said he was convinced that “had the student chewed his cereal bar into the shape of a cat and ran around the room, disrupting the classroom and making ‘meow’ cat sounds, the result would have been exactly the same.”

Nussbaum also said he found it troubling that the family allowed news media to attend the student’s hearing, noting the possibility that the child’s reputation would be tarnished.

Robin Ficker, an attorney for the family, said the parents are hoping for the best when the school board makes its decision. He argued that the school system tried to change the issue “into a long-term behavior problem after the fact.”

Anne Arundel schools spokesman Bob Mosier said in a statement that the hearing officer’s recommendation “reinforces emphatically that this case was never about a gun, as Mr. Ficker and his clients claimed. It was about a disciplinary consequence taken with regard to a student for repeated actions that violated the Code of Student Conduct.”

Mosier alleged that Ficker had exploited the boy to make a point and “irresponsibly castigated hard-working and dedicated teachers and administrators.”

In response, Ficker said he represented the best interests of his clients, who he said “believe that sunlight is a powerful disinfectant and their child had been exploited by the school system.” The child’s parents, he said, “feel the facts of this case are of great interest to the public, and they wanted the facts known.”

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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