Zero Tolerance: School District Calls Cops on Six-Year-Old with Down Syndrome over Finger-Gun Gesture


It’s important for schools to keep their students safe, but it’s also clear that these kinds of zero tolerance policies tend to do more harm than good.

A school district in Pennsylvania called the police on a six-year-old with Down Syndrome because she made a finger-gun gesture at her teacher, the girl’s mother says.

Maggie Gaines, the mother of six-year-old Margot, told her local CBS affiliate that Tredyffrin-Easttown School District filed a police report on her daughter, who is a student at Valley Forge Elementary School.

The finger-pointing incident reportedly happened in November, but made headlines after Gaines spoke to CBS about the police report this month.

“They get this phone call and I was fine with everything up until calling the police,” Gaines told the news source. “And I said, ‘You absolutely do not have to call the police. You know, this is ridiculous.’”

“My daughter got frustrated and pointed her finger at her teacher and said, ‘I shoot you,’” Gaines added. “At that point, they went to the principal’s office and it was quickly assessed that she didn’t even really know what she was saying.”

Of course, anyone sane would say that Gaines is being totally reasonable — but, believe it or not, CBS reports that the district is actually defending its decision and saying that calling the cops was necessary according to its policy.

An article about the incident in the Philadelphia Inquirer published Wednesday reports that the district “said a school board committee was evaluating” that policy now, and that’s obviously a good thing — but honestly, I think that we need to start evaluating how and why such a stupid policy could ever exist in the first place.

This is especially true considering the fact that this is far from the first time we’ve seen a story like this. For example: As the Washington Post notes in its article about Margot, a 13-year-old in Kansas was facing felony charges in October over her own finger-gun gesture. Before that, two boys (a six-year-old in Maryland and a ten-year-old in Ohio) were suspended over the same thing. Last year, a 16-year-old boy was suspended, and his father was contacted by the police, because he had posted a Snapchat video of the guns he was planning to shoot while he was at the range with his mom.

This has to stop. After all, what happened to Margot would have been awful and absurd even if she didn’t have Down Syndrome, and the fact that she does makes it actually indescribable. It never should have happened; any moderately reasonable person would agree with that.

Unfortunately, however, the exact problem with zero-tolerance policies is that they explicitly prohibit reasonable adults from using their reason. The truth is, every situation is different and has its own unique set of circumstances. That is reality, plain and simple. So why should so many schools and districts have policies in place that run counter to that fact?

Now, of course, I want to make sure to acknowledge that it is important to take real threats of violence seriously. If there is any question about whether or not something is a credible threat, then it should be treated as if it is one. The thing is, though, most adults are intelligent enough to distinguish between what is a credible threat, or even a potentially credible threat, and something that is clearly not one — and I can’t think of a better example of something unquestionably nonthreatening than a finger gesture made by a six-year-old with Down Syndrome. I have complete, total faith that the adults working in our schools would have the ability to figure that one out. In fact, the adults in Margot’s situation reportedly did figure it out. According to Gaines, the teacher and the principal “quickly assessed” that Margot didn’t even know what she meant by her actions — which is a pretty clear indication that she didn’t present any danger to herself or others.

Honestly, I can’t imagine being a student in the education system now. If my friends and I had had teachers calling the cops on us every time we joked around and said, for example, “I’m going to kill you!” because one of us was teasing another about a guy we liked while he was close to the lunch table, our local police would never have had time to do anything else.

It’s important for schools to keep their students safe, but it’s also clear that these kinds of zero-tolerance policies tend to do more harm than good. Getting the police involved or levying an absurd punishment just because that’s what some zero-tolerance rule mandates — even though it’s clear that the student in question wasn’t a danger — doesn’t make anyone safer. Worse, it can actually cause harm.

It’s true: When these sorts of situations happen, the parents of the students involved often report that their kids are traumatized by them. They worry about going back to school, they feel embarrassed, and they’re afraid of being bullied. In Margot’s case, Gaines said she’s worried that the police report, although confidential, could potentially affect Margot’s future when it comes to things like school placement. Now, I have no idea how likely that is, but I do know that it shouldn’t be something that Gaines even has to worry about — and that she wouldn’t have to worry if this school’s policy allowed teachers and administrators to exercise even the slightest amount of discretion.

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