A Maryland judge has upheld the suspension of an elementary school boy who chewed his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot classmates, supporting a finding that the boy disrupted his class and that his family was not denied due process as it appealed what has become known as the “Pop Tart case.”
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled that the school system could reasonably consider that the boy’s actions in March 2013 were disruptive and that “a suspension was appropriately used as a corrective tool to address this disruption, based on the student’s past history of escalating behavioral issues,” according to his 11-page ruling. He upheld an earlier ruling that supported the two-day suspension from the Maryland State Board of Education.
Silkworth’s opinion comes in a case that has attracted national attention and inspired legislative efforts to limit punishments for certain kinds of school misbehavior. Florida passed a bill in 2014 to limit zero-tolerance practices at schools, including discipline for “brandishing partially consumed pastry,” or other food items, to simulate a weapon.
The case started less than three months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., at a time of heightened sensitivities about guns in schools. A string of D.C.-area children were suspended around the time for imaginary or toy guns.
The father of the suspended boy in Maryland said he is considering next steps but remains interested in clearing his son’s record. The boy, who was 7 at the time of the incident, is now 11 and is completing fifth grade this week.
“It’s a mark on his record for something that doesn’t need to be there,” said William “B.J.” Welch, the boy’s father, who voiced concerns about lasting consequences of the disciplinary measures. “There’s just a lot of unknowns, and I don’t want something that could potentially debilitate his future.”
The boy was suspended when he was a second-grader at Anne Arundel’s Park Elementary School. According to school officials, the child nibbled his breakfast bar into the shape of a gun and exclaimed: “Look, I made a gun!” He then allegedly aimed the pastry at other students at their desks and in a nearby hallway.
But county school officials have long maintained that the suspension was not about guns or pastries. They say the boy was disciplined for repeated disruptions and that his two-day punishment was a last resort after a series of behavioral problems.
The state board agreed in February 2015.
“The student in this case had a long history of behavioral problems that were the subject of progressive intervention by the school,” the state board wrote at the time. “He created a classroom disruption on March 1, 2013, which resulted in a suspension that was justified based on the incident in question and the student’s history.”
Anne Arundel County school officials said the judge’s decision to uphold the suspension again shows that the school system acted appropriately in the case.
“We have believed from the outset that the actions of the school staff were not only appropriate and consistent with Board of Education policies and school system regulations, but in the best interests of all students,” said Bob Mosier, a school system spokesman. “It is unfortunate that the character of those staff members has been called into question throughout this long process, but we are grateful that Judge Silkworth reaffirmed the validity of their actions.”
Robin Ficker, the family’s attorney, said the court ruling was disappointing and he continues to see the suspension as an overreaction.
“There was no physical injury, and I think they should be able to deal with a 7-year-old in-house,” he said. “I hope the school system will think twice about putting kids out of school instead of dealing with minor discipline problems. It would be different if this was a 17-year-old and he was threatening physical harm.”
Ficker said he has handled 10 student discipline cases involving toy or imaginary guns since Sandy Hook. All except for the Anne Arundel case have led to school officials clearing student records, he said.
The family has maintained their attorney should have been able to cross-examine the assistant principal who met with the boy’s father on the day of the suspension. Welch has said there was no mention of ongoing problems at the meeting but rather a focus on the child pointing the pastry at others as if it were a gun.
The judge ruled that because the matter was an administrative proceeding, the school principal’s testimony and other evidence were sufficient.