Has Zero Tolerance Gone Too Far?
(CNN) Ten-year-old Nathan Entingh doesn’t understand why he got suspended from school for three days.
According to his father, Paul Entingh, one moment the boy was “goofing off” with his friends in fifth-grade science class, and the next the teacher was taking him out of the classroom, invoking Ohio’s zero-tolerance policy.
The offense? Nathan was “making his fingers look like a gun, having the thumb up and the pointed finger sticking out,” said Entingh, describing the February 26 incident.
“He was pointing it at a friend’s head and he said ‘boom.’ The kid didn’t see it. No other kids saw it. But the teacher saw it,” he said. “It wasn’t threatening. It wasn’t hostile. It was a 10-year-old kid playing.”
The next morning Paul Entingh escorted his son Nathan to the principal’s office, where they met with Devonshire Alternative Elementary School Principal Patricia Price.
“She said if it happened again the suspension would be longer, if not permanent,” said Entingh, who also received a letter explaining the reason for Nathan’s suspension as a “level 2 look alike firearm.”
The letter, which Entingh shared with CNN, read, “Nathan put his fingers up to another student’s head, simulating a gun, and said, ‘BOOM,’ “
Price’s office referred CNN’s call to Columbus City Schools spokesman Jeff Warner.
Price “has been warning the students for some weeks,” said Warner. “We’ve had a problem at this school. The boys have gone around fake shooting and making paper guns at class. It’s inappropriate. She has sent notes to parents for the past three weeks alerting them of the problem.”
Entingh said he never received a notice, but was aware of school authorities telling students, including Nathan, that any gun-related behavior would have serious consequences.
“I don’t know if it’s to the point it happened so much they needed to punish somebody to set an example. I don’t know, it blows my mind,” said Entingh.
Warner acknowledged there was likely no ill-intention in Nathan’s actions. “I know he (Nathan) felt it was funny and in jest, but the teacher felt it was inappropriate given the warnings that were given.”
Warner said Nathan wasn’t singled out as an example, but that his was the first incident after Price gave “her final notice last week.”
Ohio’s “zero-tolerance” rules in public schools came under attack in January when state Sen. Charleta Tavares introduced bill SB 167 to reverse or reform the original 1998 law introduced as part of SB 55.
The 1998 bill mandated schools “adopt a policy of zero tolerance for violent, disruptive, or inappropriate behavior, including excessive truancy.”
SB 55 also called for schools to “establish strategies to address such behavior that range from prevention to intervention,” but Tavares believes schools have opted for punishment strategies instead.
“We have moved away from common sense, ensuring that the punishment fits the infraction,” said Tavares. “We should maintain the highest form of punishment which is expulsion or suspension to those cases that cause the most harm.”
Ohio Department of Education statistics show Nathan isn’t alone.
According to state disciplinary figures for the 2012-2013 school year, a total of 419 statewide students, from various grade levels, were suspended because of an incident in the category of “firearm look-a-likes,” and an additional 38 students were expelled.
In the Columbus City Schools district, where Nathan goes to school, 12 students were expelled because of incidents in the “firearm look-a-likes” category, while 69 students were suspended. Contrast that with categories such as harassment and intimidation, in which zero students were expelled, though 1527 were suspended districtwide.
Tavares has been trying to build consensus for her bill arguing that the current law is outdated because it doesn’t take into consideration other factors, such as behavior and mental health.
“The bigger issue is that we need more behavior health and counseling at school so we can look at the root cause of why this child is acting out and being disruptive,” said Tavares.
Entingh agrees and said he is planning to reach out to Tavares. He has struggled to help Nathan make sense of what happened.
“How much of a threat can it really be for a 10-year-old to hold up his fingers?” said a frustrated Entingh. “I would like for somebody to explain this to me because apparently I don’t get it. This is way over the boundary. A teacher could have talked to him and sat him down, given him detention, but a three days suspension?”
Entingh is the father of five children, including Nathan, and he says none of them have ever gotten in trouble at school. Until now.
When asked what has Nathan learned from this incident, Entingh paused, then scoffed: “He’s learned never to make his fingers like a gun a school again. I don’t know if you consider that a life lesson.”
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