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School suspends kindergartner whose costume violates weapons policy

A firefighter's Halloween costume has resulted in an unlikely suspension for a five-year-old Deer Lakes Elementary student

Tuesday, November 03, 1998

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

When Annette Locke bought her 5-year-old son Jordan a firefighter costume for Halloween, she never imagined the five-inch plastic ax attached to it would be considered a weapon.

  Kindergartener Jordan Locke in his firefighter's costume. (Matt Freed, Post-Gazette)

Then she got a 8:45 a.m. call at work on Friday from her son's principal.

There was a "serious problem" with Jordan's Halloween costume, serious enough to suspend him from kindergarten for a day for violating the Deer Lakes School District's weapons policy.

The unimaginable was now real.

"I said, 'How am I going to explain to him he can't go to school on Monday? He likes school,' " Locke of West Deer recalled telling the principal.

"It ruined his weekend. He thinks he did something wrong. For a little kid at five years old to go through this is ridiculous."

As school districts across the country adopt "zero-tolerance" policies for everything from weapons to harassment, the lack of tolerance has been attracting almost as much attention as the behavior the rules intend to control.

A first grade boy's kiss on a girl's cheek was labeled sexual harassment in Lexington, N.C., two years ago.

Last month, in Loudoun County, Va., a high school principal ordered the drama club to substitute wooden staffs for fake swords in a production of William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

Now, a kindergartner's toy firefighter's ax is a simulated weapon that violates a district weapons policy.

In fact, the Deer Lakes elementary school handbook distributed to all parents at the beginning of the school year mentions that look-alike weapons included with Halloween costumes are prohibited under the weapons policy.

Janet Ciramella, principal of Curtisville Elementary, where Jordan is enrolled, said she sent letters home with students on Oct. 9 to remind parents about the rule in anticipation of school Halloween parties.

"We don't want to encourage children to play with weapons, and we don't want to encourage a tolerance for violence," Ciramella said. "I don't think the policy is extreme or inappropriate. I think it's a very good policy for the protection and safety of our students."

Ciramella said two kindergartners were suspended for a day last year because one brought a toy knife and the other a toy gun to school. Neither incident was connected to Halloween.

Locke doesn't remember reading about the Halloween costume warning in the handbook.

But even though Locke understands the concern about look-alike weapons -- she's never bought Jordan a toy gun or knife -- she believes the school overreacted to her son's toy ax.

The youngster wasn't even allowed to take it home with him on the school bus because it would have violated the district's bus discipline policy. Locke had to ask a janitor to hold onto it until she could pick it up after work Friday afternoon.

Then yesterday, she paid a babysitter $22 to watch Jordan while he stayed home from school.

"I didn't consider the ax a weapon. I thought of it as part of the fireman's costume," she said, adding that the outfit included a yellow coat and a little red helmet as well as the gray plastic ax with red handle.

"I'm aware of violence in schools, but we're talking about a 5-year-old kid. He wasn't trying to hit anybody with it. I think it's a silly rule. Innocent kids are getting penalized. The punishment does not fit the crime. It's just out of control."

Locke took her complaints to school board President Thomas DeBolt, who advised her to write a letter to the superintendent and the board. DeBolt said the issue will be discussed at the board's agenda review meeting on Nov. 11.

He also acknowledged that when the board adopted its weapons policy in 1996 prohibiting look-alike weapons, members were thinking more in terms of toy guns and the problems they could cause rather than Halloween costume accessories.

"When the policy was under discussion, this wasn't quite the situation that we saw it being applied to. We might have been remiss because it's probably the most likely situation to come up," he said. "I don't think the possibility had crossed anyone's mind."

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