In ‘Pop-Tart’ case appeal, officials cite other alleged misbehavior

School officials who suspended a boy in Anne Arundel County last year after he chewed his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun said they took disciplinary action against the second-grader because of ongoing classroom disruption, not his imaginary weapon.

“We had not been able to make him understand that he had to follow the rules,” Sandra Blondell, principal at Park Elementary School, testified during an appeals hearing Tuesday that lasted more than six hours in what has become known as “the Pop-Tart case.”

Blondell said that the child, then 7 years old and diagnosed with ADHD, received the two-day suspension after repeated problems and lost instructional time. “This must have been probably the 15th or 20th time there was a classroom disruption,” she said.

The testimony marked Anne Arundel’s first public account of a case that has dragged on for 14 months and attracted national attention. The Maryland case inspired a recently passed “Pop-Tart bill” in Florida that intends to limit zero-tolerance practices at schools, including discipline for “brandishing partially consumed pastry” or other food item to simulate a weapon.

The Maryland pastry incident goes back to March 2013, a few months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, at a time when a string of young children in the Washington region were disciplined at school for gun-related play.

For more than a year, the Anne Arundel boy’s family has been asking school officials to clear the episode from his boy’s records, saying that it unfairly tarnishes his file with a gun-related offense.

The boy’s disciplinary referral uses the word “gun” four times, saying the child “chewed his cereal bar into the shape of a gun” and aimed it at other children. The document quotes the boy as yelling: “Look, I made a gun!”

At Tuesday’s hearing, school officials said the boy also had nibbled his pastry into a gun shape a day earlier. But his teacher, Jessica Fultz, testified that on that day he was more compliant when admonished. On the day he was suspended, she said, he was not responsive when she told him to stop.

No decision came immediately on the family’s request. Hearing Examiner Andrew Nussbaum is expected to make a recommendation to the Anne Arundel Board of Education in coming weeks. The board would then take up the issue.

This week’s hearing offered a rare public glimpse into a discipline case. Such matters are usually argued in private, but the boy’s parents opted to make the proceedings public, saying they wanted transparency.

The boy was seated between his parents for the session — at times drawing pictures or playing games on a cellphone — but he remained quiet as the adults around him talked for hours about his alleged misbehavior, his school’s responses and exactly what prompted his suspension.

Laurie Pritchard, Anne Arundel’s director of legal services, said that the object central to the case had been misportrayed, as well as the reason for the discipline.

“First of all, it wasn’t a Pop-Tart,” she said. “It was a breakfast pastry. And he was not suspended because he chewed his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.” He was suspended for “an ongoing classroom disruption,” she said.

School officials produced a lengthy log of various types of incidents. They argued that they had made many efforts to address the boy’s behavioral issues. The family said they had not seen the list before and had been unaware of a number of the incidents.

The family’s attorney, Robin Ficker, said school officials were trying to change the discussion from the pastry gun to the child’s past. He noted that other cases involving students suspended for pretend guns had resulted in the expunging of student records.

Ficker asked what harm would be done by doing so for the boy.

“He deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt,” he said.

The child, Joshua Welch, testified near the hearing’s end. Asked whether he did something wrong, the boy, now 9 years old and in third grade, said the gun was “inappropriate for a school” and talked about needing to pay more attention. He expressed his hopes for how he would like the case resolved: “I would like that taken off my record.”

His father, William “B.J.” Welch, said that although he and his wife had positive experiences with the school, he is certain his son was suspended because of his pastry creation.

Welch testified that, on the day his son was suspended, the assistant principal, Myrna Phillips, “did not talk about previous incidents. She didn’t talk about his classroom disruption or his history of behavioral problems.”

The conversation “was about nothing except guns and school and her dislike of them,” he said, contending that if his son had chewed his breakfast treat into the shape of, say, “a kitty cat,” the suspension would not have happened.

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