This piece was written by the father of a 14-year-old student who attends a private school in Maryland. It is about a punishment that his son’s school gave the boy after he was found to have been involved in a video in which another boy was holding a fake gun.
The father is David Bernstein, head of a nonprofit organization in the Washington area. He believes that the school, which will remain unnamed, went too far. I asked the school about this situation, and leaders said the punishment was deserved. Their response appears below after Bernstein’s piece.
The school said that, in determining the punishment for this student, they took into consideration his past behavior, age and mitigating circumstances. Bernstein said that his son had never been in serious trouble at the school before but had been called out for “class clown” behavior.
Some of you may think Bernstein is just trying to justify his child’s behavior. Some of you may agree with him entirely.
Read it and see what you think.
By David Bernstein
I recently received an unexpected phone call from the principal at my son’s small private school for kids with language-based learning disabilities in Maryland. My son, 14, was lurking in the background of a video made by another boy toting a gun — not a real gun, a disabled airsoft gun that shoots plastic pellets.
My son’s school investigated and found that, in addition to the other boy’s video, my son had taken a selfie of the other kid holding him in a headlock pointing the fake gun at my son’s head. My son then shared it, without comment, with 13 friends on Snapchat.
“This is very, very serious,” the principal said. She informed me that my son would be suspended for the remainder of the year — three weeks.
Without a doubt, my son exercised horrible judgment and deserved to suffer consequences. Without a doubt, schools have an obligation to protect their students from gun violence.
But did the school really need to suspend a kid who they know has never been violent and did nothing intentionally threatening for three weeks? The principal said my son needed time to reflect on what he had done.
What, I wondered, could he possibly learn in a three-week suspension that he couldn’t learn in, say, three days? Indeed, multiple studies show that long-term suspensions make for worse, not better behavior. Why would a school that prides itself on its progressive values resort to a punitive and counterproductive intervention?
Societies tend to adopt draconian punishment during times of heightened fear. When hysteria sets in, many lose the ability to distinguish what is actually risky from what vaguely resembles the risk but is perfectly safe.
The kid suspended for biting a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun comes to mind. So does the second-grader suspended for pretending his pencil was a gun. So do the kids who brought paring knives to school for their apples, etc., etc. In each case, the only connection between their actions and real violence was in the administrators’ imaginations, unable to distinguish between an Uzi and a pastry.
It was the exaggerated fear in the early 1990s that prompted Congress and state legislatures to pass severe crime legislation such as the “three strikes” laws, which resulted in the monstrosity of mass incarceration.
It was the exaggerated fear of kidnapping that led to “helicopter parenting” and a generation of risk-averse kids forced to stay indoors.
It was the exaggerated idea of creeps in white vans that led to sex offender registries filled with people once arrested for public urination or taking nude selfies.
Bad risk assessment causes social institutions to overreach and scapegoat those they falsely deem to pose a risk.
Forty-three students, not including the shooters, have been killed in school shootings since the beginning of 2017. That’s 43 too many. And it’s a national disgrace that our gun laws have not been strengthened to lower the risk.
In that same period, however, 15,000 school-aged kids died in car accidents. A child is 350 times more likely to be killed in a car accident than in a school shooting. Even with the disturbing rise in shootings, schools are relatively safe places to be.
In overstating the risk of shootings, school officials end up overreacting. A child who poses with a fake gun on social media — which is actually quite common — is not on the same risk continuum as a school shooter — which is extremely uncommon.
An unloaded airsoft gun is not one step away from an AK-47. It cannot turn into a real gun. A kid with poor enough judgment to pose with an airsoft gun is not one step away from shooting up his school with a real gun. He is one step away from being an adolescent knucklehead who needs, perhaps, three days of intense reflection.
When I went to the principal’s office one last time to plead for leniency, she talked about how my son’s photo might have impacted students with anxiety. “We have to protect them,” she asserted. Rather than protecting anyone from anxiety, this is the way to increase it: jump at every shadow, overreact to non-threats and pretend that they are no different from real ones.
I regret that my son didn’t understand the possible impact of his actions. But I regret even more the school ignoring my son’s true intent to “look like a bad---” to his friends. I regret the school giving in to unfounded fears.
Here is the emailed response from the leaders of the school:
As you well know, it is important for independent schools to respect the privacy of individual students, and so we are not able to comment on the specifics of any particular situation.
However, like other schools, when a discipline situation arises, consistent with our school culture and practice, we carefully consider the context of the incident. This includes the prior history of the student, their age and mitigating factors, and we speak with the student and the student’s family. Our goal is to help students learn from the situation so that they are better prepared for college and life. We do not have a zero tolerance policy.