No danger, but ‘loud pop’ from gun scared students
By Marcy Stamper
An elementary school student who brought a toy cap gun onto a school bus on Wednesday morning (April 29) is going through the Methow Valley School District’s disciplinary process, which treats even toy guns seriously because they can make people feel unsafe, school officials said this week.
No one was harmed in the bus incident. Anne Andersen, Methow Valley Elementary School principal, notified all elementary students’ families by email after she learned that rumors were circulating on social media that it had been a real gun.
The student reportedly removed the toy gun from a backpack at the urging of another student and squeezed the trigger, said Andersen in an interview this week. The gun had at least one cap, which caused a loud pop on the bus when the student pulled the trigger. The toy gun was empty when Andersen confiscated it after meeting with the student.
“It was a perceived safety issue. Kids on the bus were frightened by the noise and didn’t understand what was happening,” said Andersen.
“The gun was very realistic-looking, which was one of the main concerns,” she said. “It’s always an issue how to treat these incidents, because toys can look real.”
According to school policy, “A student shall not possess or transmit any object that can reasonably be considered a firearm, air gun or a dangerous weapon.” Violation of the rule results in an emergency expulsion for up to one year. The prohibition covers the school campus and buses, said Andersen.
“Given the climate that we live in and recent memories of Sandy Hook and other events, obviously we attempt to take every precaution, which includes responding quickly to incidents that involve a weapon or anything that replicates a weapon. It puts us on high alert,” said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable.
The incident was reported to the bus driver by other students as they were getting off the bus. The students told Andersen when they got to school.
The toy gun apparently belonged to a younger sibling of the student who brought it onto the bus, said Andersen. She met with the student’s parent later that day. She has also spoken with all the students who were directly involved — including those who had been frightened — and some of their parents.
School administrators could provide only limited details in order to preserve confidentiality for the students involved.
In accordance with school policy, the student was expelled from school the day of the incident, said Andersen. School policy mandates an emergency expulsion for anything that poses a safety risk, which provides time for further investigation and to consider appropriate consequences, she said.
After an emergency expulsion, the policy states that a student is not permitted to return to school until after a hearing, said Venable. School officials have already held the hearing and have worked out an arrangement that Andersen said is understood by the student, parent and school.
The student is currently not in school but will probably be allowed to return, she said. Andersen noted that this is different from a situation involving a real weapon, since there had been no intent to harm anyone.
“What we’re saying as a school district — and parents and community members would agree — is that not only are we a weapons-free zone but, to minimize disruption and make sure that school is a place where children and community members feel safe, we don’t allow toys that replicate weapons,” said Venable.
If a student brings a toy to school that looks like a gun and displays it, it can create fear in other students and staff, said Venable. “Objects that replicate weapons are not permitted,” he said.
Incidents involving look-alike weapons occur in the Methow Valley School District “a couple of times a year” and must be taken seriously, said Andersen. Having a student bring a toy gun to school is not unique; what was unique in this situation was the alarm caused by rumors on social media, which prompted her to notify families, said Andersen.
“In all of these cases, the most important consideration is to make sure the environment is as safe as we can possibly make it,” she said. In this situation, students felt unsafe and when parents heard about it they were concerned, she said.
Responses tailored to incident
Administrators are permitted subjectivity in handling these cases, said Venable. If something is obviously a toy — such as a multi-colored squirt gun — and there is no history of disciplinary action against a student, the consequences could be less stringent, he said.
If a student realizes that he or she has inadvertently brought a gun or knife, even a toy, to school in a backpack — for example, after a weekend of hunting or fishing — and tells a teacher or principal, that is considered responsible behavior and will not result in an expulsion, said Venable. A staff member will retain the gun or knife for safekeeping and notify the student’s parents.
The school district does not have a strict policy regarding when to notify families of an incident involving a real or toy weapon, according to Venable. They approach these episodes based on the circumstances particular to each incident.
When other students see a weapon, whether it is real or a toy, administrators typically notify families to clarify the situation and dispel any rumors, he said.
If a staff member deals with a student directly and other children are not involved, school administrators may handle the situation internally and not report it to families, he said.
Venable noted that students may have access to guns for hunting, in which case they would have received training about how to keep themselves and others safe. Nevertheless, the school district has to be vigilant because a weapon could come into the possession of a student who doesn’t have that training, he said.
“If there’s a place to err on the side of caution, this is one of the areas where we’d like to do so,” said Venable.
Weapons at school last year
State and federal laws set strict prohibitions against bringing firearms, knives or other weapons onto school grounds or transportation. The legislation also addresses “look-alike” firearms, prescribing expulsion when a student acts with malice or intent to annoy or injure another person.
The law also requires each school district to report all incidents involving weapons to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In the 2013-14 school year, the Methow Valley School District reported four expulsions for a knife or dagger. Two of the knives involved Liberty Bell High School students and at least one involved an elementary student, said Venable.
The report for that year also lists one suspension and one expulsion for a student who brought a handgun to school, but Venable said he was fairly confident this had been an “entry error.” Neither he nor Liberty Bell Junior/Senior High Principal Deborah DeKalb recall an incident involving a gun, which is clearly serious enough that it would not have escaped their attention, he said. Furthermore, school policy mandates an automatic expulsion, not a suspension and expulsion, he said.
There were no weapons of any type reported during the previous three school years. In the 2009-10 school year, there was a report of one suspension in the “other weapon” category (other than firearms, knives or daggers).