Advocate Editorial Board opinion: Children should be able to play with freedom

By the Advocate Editorial Board
Feb. 25, 2013 at 6 p.m.
Updated Feb. 24, 2013 at 8:25 p.m.

Schools are intended to be safe environments that promote learning, creativity and education. When an incident like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., takes place, it is easy to react in fear.

Across the country, schools are adopting zero tolerance policies dealing with anything associated with weapons. It was already illegal to bring actual weapons on campus. Students, including 5- and 6-year-olds, are now banned from doing anything associated with weapons, particularly guns.

Students of all ages were threatened with or given suspension: A 5-year-old kindergartner in Pennsylvania for talking about shooting her friends with a Hello Kitty bubble gun, a 6-year-old for using his fingers as a pretend gun in a game of cops and robbers and an Arizona teen for using a picture of a gun as the background image on his school-issued laptop. These are just a few of the reactions seen in schools where zero tolerance policies are in place.

Tough, unyielding policies such as these are counterproductive and overly restrictive. Children have grown up playing games such as cowboys and indians or cops and robbers for generations. Our entertainment industry immortalizes characters such as John McClane from the "Die Hard" series or actors such as John Wayne, who portrayed rough-and-tumble cowboys or American military heroes. Children imitate what they look up to and punishing them for such harmless play is excessive and wrong.

Of course, not all play is harmless, and teachers should be able to discern the difference between a harmless game and bullying or threatening behavior. If a child is intentionally intimidating or threatening another student, action should be taken. But punishing a child for taking part in a harmless game of make-believe is in itself a form of intimidation.

These policies seem to be more of a shield for schools than it is for other students. By leaning on a zero tolerance policy, schools can take action, however excessive it may be, and point to this blanket policy for defense. Schools are able to avoid making a tough decision by condemning all actions associated with weapons rather than addressing the few instances that may constitute a true threat. While an absence of a zero tolerance policy does leave an opening for inconsistencies in enforcement depending on the interpretation of the individual teacher or administrator, it also allows children to play their imaginary games without fear of unnecessary punishment.

We applaud the Victoria Independent School District for steering clear of these zero tolerance policies. We are proud to see our area public schools using a system that relies on common sense rather than blind enforcement of a policy rooted in fear. Rather than punishing children for playing like children, the district is taking other steps to make campuses safer places for everyone, including adding card readers on certain doors and putting security cameras at entrances so office attendants can monitor who enters and exits the school building. We are glad the district is taking meaningful action to protect students in Victoria while allowing them to continue behaving like the innocent children they are.

This editorial reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.



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