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PointSouth / Roger Stuart: School gives new meaning to 'weapons drawn'

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Cartoonists, beware! The doodle police have been at work in the Mt. Lebanon school system, and as one who doodles, I find that more than a trifle frightening.

Stuart

Becca Johnson, a sixth-grader at Mellon Middle School, was suspended for three days because she did so poorly on a vocabulary test that she vented her vexation by drawing a pair of stick figures interpreted as a terrorist threat.

One represented the substitute teacher who had given the test. The other depicted the regular classroom teacher. One had an arrow through the head. The other looked like a character in the game of hangman.

So far as I can tell, the quality of the artwork was never evaluated.

My first inclination was to view the Mt. Lebanon school personnel who punished Becca as first cousins of the politically correct and second cousins of the thought police.

"We've taught her to work through feelings by drawing them," Becca's mother, Barbara, said. "She likes to draw, so that's what she does. ... She said, 'I forgot about it.' She got her feelings out, and that was it."

But a teacher found the drawings among Becca's papers and turned them in, Becca was suspended, and the case drew national attention, including a story on CNN.com.

Here we go again, I thought, with zero tolerance -- which translates for me as thwarting the very liberty of expression I expect our schools to teach as a first right of citizenship.

Two years ago, in Chartiers Valley School District, some parents wanted to ban a local flea market operator from giving away T-shirts to 750 pupils in kindergarten through second grade because the shirts bore the image of a frontiersman bearing a rifle.

I remember thinking that The Minuteman Statue in Lexington, Mass., might be the next target because it depicts John Parker, leader of the militia, holding a musket.

Three years ago, Commonwealth Court declared unconstitutional the Penn Hills School District's unwritten policy on students caught with weapons on school property.

The case grew from a seventh-grader's expulsion from Linton Middle School after he found a miniature Swiss Army knife in a school hallway. When a teacher saw the 12-year-old filing a fingernail with it, he was asked to turn it in. Although he did so willingly, he was expelled for a year but served only 1 1/2 months before the court intervened.

Four years ago, a 5-year-old was suspended from kindergarten for a day for violating Deer Lakes School District's weapons policy by wearing a firefighter costume for Halloween with a 5-inch toy ax attached.

But, even with all the publicity such incidents invite and draw, we sometimes fail to understand all of the factors associated with them, says Keystone Oaks Superintendent Carl DeJulio, thanks to confidentiality mandates imposed upon school administrators.

"I certainly would never second-guess a situation," he says. "It's difficult when you're dealing with minors because they are afforded protection not afforded to adults."

Back in the '50s, when both DeJulio and I were public school students, such incidents as Becca Johnson's doodling would have been a non-issue, or at most a matter referred to parents with a note asking them to chasten their child.

But in this post-Columbine, post-Sept. 11 era, post-traumatic stress seems to have overtaken us all. Indeed, DeJulio says, our reflex actions often mirror those of a combat soldier taken aback on his return home by the backfire of an auto.

Even more tragic than the Becca Johnson case was another story in the same day's Post-Gazette detailing the arrest of a Schenley High School freshman after he was caught trying to sneak into school with a loaded .25-caliber semiautomatic handgun.

Robert Fadzen, chief of public safety for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said the youth told school police that he carried the gun because he feared for his safety in his neighborhood.

I started this column with one scary thought and have finished with another even more frightening. We are indeed enmeshed in a war on terror. I don't like it and don't know anyone who does.


South Editor Roger Stuart can be reached at rstuart@post-gazette.com

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