Schools Quick to Suspend Students After Newtown

Schools across the United States have returned to business as usual following December’s holiday break, but the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Connecticut is still fresh in the minds of school personnel as they struggle to deal with questions about security and discipline.

Some schools are erring on the side of caution in such a sensitive climate, with stories of students being suspended in ways their families consider unfair gaining nationwide attention.

17-year old Courtni Webb, a student in the San Francisco, California area, wrote a poem privately as a “therapeutic exercise” in which she expressed empathy for Newtown shooter Adam Lanza. The poem included the following:

‘I understand the killings in Connecticut. I know why he pulled the trigger’

‘Why are we oppressed by a dysfunctional community of haters and blamers?’

Ms. Webb’s notebook was found by a teacher who upon reading the poem turned it over to school officials. Ms. Webb was suspended until further notice.

She and her family argue that she has no history of violence, that she did not express any desire to commit an act of violence or threaten another student, and does not deserve the punishment.

The San Francisco Unified School District will decide whether Ms. Webb poses a threat to staff or students.

In Silver Springs, Maryland, a 6-year old boy formed a ‘pistol’ gesture with his thumb and forefinger and said, “Pow!” to another student. The act was interpreted by a teacher to be a threat by the boy to shoot one of his peers.

In Silver Spring, the 6-year-old’s parents received a Dec. 20 letter from Renee Garraway, an assistant principal at Roscoe Nix Elementary School, saying that their son “threatened to shoot a student” and that he had been spoken to earlier about similar behavior.

While most understand the state of heightened sensitivity that an incident like the Newtown shooting can cause, reactions to both incidents suggest that the public — and school staff — want a blend of safety and sensibility with discipline. Commenters on articles have frequently noted that having a student’s permanent record include a suspension relating to threatening violence could have a major impact on that student’s future.

At the National Post, Matt Gurney opines that, “suspending a kid for saying “Pow!” just makes us look stupid.” Gurney points out that if teachers and administrators want to maintain the public’s respect — and want to be seen as “reliable judges” of students — they need to use their authority wisely.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at www.matthewktabor.com , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.