In Newtown's Wake, Schools Crackdown on Imaginary Weapons

PHOTO: Boy a plays with toy gun.Getty Images
Boy a plays with toy gun.

A Colorado second grader was suspended from school this week for pretending to throw an imaginary grenade during a playground game of "Rescue the World."

The suspension of Alex Evans, 7, added invisible hand grenades to an ever-growing make-believe arsenal that has landed kids in trouble, and parents wondering if schools have gone too far.

In the wake of December's tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., schools nationwide have taken zero-tolerance policies aimed at reducing violence, suspending kids as young as 5 for brandishing "guns" made from Lego blocks and cutout pieces of paper.

But the policy at Evans' Mary Blair Elementary school in Loveland, Colo., is simple and stringent. "No Weapons (real or play)" is one of the school's "ABSOLUTES," or rules.

Earlier this month, 5-year-old Joseph Cruz was kicked out of his Massachusetts after-school program for pointing a 2-inch length of Lego at a classmate.

Joseph's mother Sheila Cruz said she was "dumbfounded" when she first learned of her son's suspension.

"And then I took a little time to think about it and I was just like, this is really ridiculous. He's 5 years old, and this is what 5-year-olds do. They play with Legos. They do finger guns," she said.

Nationwide schools have been cracking down on toy guns in recent years. As recently as October, two months before the massacre in Newtown, a kindergartner in Missouri was suspended for 10 days after bringing to school a gun that shot foam Nerf bullets.

But after the Newtown shooting, schools are cracking down not just on toy guns but on imaginary play itself, a shift some parents feel stifles children rather than protects them.

In Maryland last month the parents of a 6-year-old enlisted the help of lawyers to have his suspension lifted after simply pointing his finger like a gun.

A fifth-grade girl from Philadelphia was suspended in January after bringing to school a piece of paper with a corner roughly torn out, which administrators said too closely resembled a gun.

Two weeks ago, a 5-year-old Pennsylvania girl was suspended for making a "terrorist threat" when she told a classmate she was going to bring to school a Hello Kitty gun that blew bubbles. She never brought the gun to school, but was suspended anyway, her family's attorney told ABC

"I think people know how harmless a bubble is. It doesn't hurt," Robin Ficker, an attorney for the girl's family, said at the time.

"The mother has tried to get the girl in another school since this time, and they won't take the little girl because of this mark on her record," Ficker said.

In October, two months before the massacre in Newton, a kindergartner in Missouri was suspended for 10 days after bringing to school a gun that shot foam Nerf bullets.

These incidents have garnered plenty of media attention, and spurred a backlash to the crackdown.

"It's good for kids to engage in imaginary play like cops and robbers," said Lenore Skenazy, creator of the book, blog and movement called Free-Range Kids. "This is something kids have always done and I know of no study that proves pretending to have gun turns kids into killers, anymore than playing with blocks turns kids into architects."

But as laughable as some of the incidents appear, another case this week sheds an all too serious light on why kids and guns they believe are toys can be a dangerous mix.

On Monday, a 3-year-old boy in Greenville, S.C., was fatally shot in the head while he and his older brother played with a loaded handgun, painted bubble-gum pink. They thought it was a toy.

The gun discharged accidently, police said.

"There has to be a balance between protecting our kids and letting them be kids," said Alison Rhodes, founder of "A kid holding his finger like a gun isn't a real threat, but a kid bringing to school something that looks like a gun needs to be taken seriously. These things should be considered on a case-by-case basis."