To understand our undoing as a nation, all you need to do is examine a single disciplinary form filled out by a second-grade teacher May 3.
In the “description of incident” section, the teacher wrote: “Christopher pointed his pencil at another student as if it was a gun and made shooting sounds. I told him to stop and he did.”
Now, you might think that that final sentence meant she told him to stop and he did. As in, “OK, kids, now let’s get back to our math lesson.” But in fact, the next part of the form, regarding “action taken,” is labeled, “This section must be filled out prior to sending material to the office.” So it was, and all the post-pencil-pointing action taken was detailed. Apparently, the administrators:
1) Held a conference with the student.
2) Met with his mother.
3) Suspended the boy for two days.
That’ll teach him to point a pencil!
Of course, this was all the result of zero tolerance, the school rules that often are interpreted with such bizarre literalness that it’s as if the principals have willed themselves into a kind of administrative autism. In this case, the school’s policy is against “weapons or anything that resembles a weapon.” If there’s any difference between a pencil and a gun, well, the principal couldn’t see it.
But what’s even more disturbing — and that’s saying a lot — is that the administration assumed its students are just as delusional.
Bethanne Bradshaw, a spokeswoman for Suffolk Public Schools, the school district in which the pencil pointing happened, told a Fox reporter that when an object is accompanied by verbal “gun noises” (or at least the universal stand-in for real gun noise — the word “Bang!”), “some children would consider it threatening, who are scared about shootings in schools or shootings in the community. … They think about drive-by shootings and murders.”
They do? Then here’s a tip: Instead of reinforcing their hysteria by reacting as if they’re in real danger, try saying something soothing — for example, “Look, hon, it’s just a pencil” — or something satisfying, for example, “For goodness’ sake, it’s just a pencil!”
But seeing as it seems likelier that the kids were not scared of being shot by a No. 2 Dixon Ticonderoga, then let’s retire the “Oh, the poor, rattled children!” rationale. If no one feels threatened, why overreact? And why teach kids to overreact, too?
Because that’s what we’ve been trained to do. Safetyland — excuse me, America — is so obsessed with safety that we demand it even when we’re already extremely safe. We want super-safety — the kind you get when you make middle-aged moms take off their shoes before getting to the gate. Yes, we are 99.99999 percent sure you’re not a shoe bomber, but just in case.
At school: Yes, we are 99.999999999999999999999 percent sure your pencil is not a gun, but just in case.
And in the courts: Yes, we are 99.99999999999999999999999999 9999999999999 percent convinced that a simple “Put down that pencil” would have been the appropriate response. Case closed.
Until that sane day, we must remain very afraid.
Of safety hysteria.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.”