There is mixed news out of Sumter, South Carolina. On February 1, Sumter School district Superintendent Dr. Randolph Bynum reversed the expulsion of six year-old Naomi McKinney, a situation I recently chronicled in an article titled: It Has Spread to South Carolina. This is good news indeed for Naomi, but on balance, bad news for the citizens of Sumter.
Among the facts revealed since my original article:
The Sumter police were called, examined if not seized the “gun,” and wrote a report noting it “[was] not recognized as a weapon according to state law.” They described it as “a BB gun that shoots plastic pellets,” pellets that were visible through the clear plastic.
According to Naomi’s father Hank, the gun was broken and would not fire.
A “hearing panel,” reviewed the case and upheld Naomi’s suspension.
Naomi has been out of school for nearly a month.
Thursday, Sumter School District Superintendent Dr. Randolph Bynum overturned his decision saying: ‘After careful thought and consideration for the safety of the school community, I have decided to vacate the ruling of the hearing panel. The suspension time has been served.
Notice that Mr. Bynum called Naomi’s punishment a “suspension,” when in fact, she was expelled for at least the remainder of the school year. Hank McKinney was thankful and restrained:
It’s about time, I hate that it had to go public, but maybe they need to rethink their policies a little,’ said Hank McKinney.
According to WLTX, the school district is giving at least the appearance of taking McKinney’s advice:
Sumter Superintendent Dr. Bynum says that they will collectively revisit all board policies that affect student discipline.
Good idea. Better late than never.
McKinney showed far more concern for Naomi’s education than the school district:
I hope she didn’t fall behind, we tried to pick up the ball with her education ourselves and teach her each day as we had her there,’ said McKinney.
As I noted in my original article, I sent an e-mail to Dr. Bynum:
Date: January 31, 2013 10:00:05 PM CST
Subject: Expulsion of Naomi McKinney
Dear Superintendent Bynum:
Good day. I write out of concern regarding a new story about the expulsion of Naomi McKinney, allegedly for bringing what would seem to be clearly a toy gun–a toy that could not reasonably be mistaken for an actual firearm, an actual weapon–to school.
It seems incredible that any school district would not only expel a six year-old girl for this, but would threaten her with arrest should she so much as cross a school property line in her parent’s vehicle.
Is there more to the story than news accounts are saying? I’d appreciate a response, and will publish it verbatim for the edification of my readers. I understand privacy laws, but perhaps you could address the relevant issues in a hypothetical fashion? Do you consider even toys that cannot possibly be mistaken for real firearms a danger? Do you consider such toys so dangerous as to require the expulsion of a kindergartner? Would you truly have a child in that situation arrested?
For your convenience, my article on this situation may be found at:
Thank your for your attention to this matter, and I hope to hear from you in the near future.
Stately McDaniel Manor
It will likely not be a surprise to readers that I’ve received no answer and doubt that one will be forthcoming. I hope Dr. Bynum and every professional, rational educator working in Sumter is cringing in embarrassment and hoping the media and blogstorms–to which I was glad to contribute–over their indefensible actions will quickly go away. But more likely, there are some in the district who are angry today, angry because they believe they were completely justified and who are even angry at little Naomi, who they no doubt feel got off lightly. Perhaps some even blame her for making them “look bad.” If so, this is very bad news for the citizens of Sumter and their school-aged children.
One might argue that because Mr. Bynum reversed the district’s decision, the system worked. They would be wrong. The Sumter system failed miserably and is likely–without substantial and immediate changes, likely to fail again–and for nearly a month, hunkered down and defended the indefensible. For a month it denied a little girl her education and treated her like a deadly threat, forcing her parents to avoid so much as driving on school property with her in the vehicle. It isolated and demonized Naomi and treated her like a social pariah; all of the resources of the school district were arrayed against a 6 year-old girl. There was apparently not a single adult–not one–in that school district or on the local school board with the decency and common sense to stand up and say: “this has gone too far.”
We know what did happen. What should have happened?
Let us recognize, first and foremost, two facts:
(1) Zero tolerance policies of any kind are foolish and sure to harm everyone that applies or runs afoul of them. They are zero discretion and zero thinking policies. They suggest that school districts don’t think highly enough of the intellects and common sense of their employees to trust them with adult decisions. Alternately they allow incompetent, even malicious, people to avoid making decisions and doing the jobs for which the public hires them. They are feel good statements of false virtue rather than the application of professional judgment and adult good sense.
The Sumter School District’s policy was overbroad and poorly written and as such, invited abuse, abuse that was visited on Naomi McKinney.
(2) Naomi is blameless. She is not sufficiently old to understand that she was doing anything wrong. She is certainly not old enough to understand adult overreactions to events half a nation away. However, she is sufficiently old to understand that the toy she brought to school was just that–a toy–and her classmates would like to see it, just as they would any similar toy. In that understanding, she displayed far more adult common sense than any of the adults involved in this debacle.
In this or any similar case, a rational teacher would have had two options: (1) Allow Naomi to display the toy for show and tell, and treat it as any other show and tell item. Children take their behavioral cues from adults. Treating a toy gun as though a live and ticking bomb had been brought into the school is hardly a good model of behavior for children. (2) Quietly, kindly and privately explain to Naomi that school rules don’t allow some things for show and tell. Hold the toy until she left for home, return it to her then, and discuss other things she might bring the next day. Naomi would probably have said it was silly not to allow kids to see something most of them play with every day, and her teacher could have simply said adults are silly that way sometimes. Any 6 year-old understands that.
But let’s continue to explore what went wrong. When Naomi’s teacher seized the toy they must have immediately involved the school principal (teachers cannot unilaterally suspend or expel students). The first chance to deal professionally and rationally with this situation was already lost. The principal had the second chance.
Any competent principal should, at most, have talked briefly with Naomi and explained that some things shouldn’t be brought to school and returned her to class. Obviously, however, this principal–Jeannie Pressley–entirely missed the opportunity to correct a plainly ridiculous overreaction on the part of the teacher and at the very least, endorsed the expulsion of Naomi.
In most school districts, such decisions automatically flow up the chain of command to an assistant superintendent and/or the superintendent, so there are normally at least one or two more opportunities to inject common sense into ill-conceived decisions. However, in many school districts, even if an administrator thinks a principal has made a questionable decision, they will tend to circle the wagons against students and parents. There is no way to tell if that was the case here, or if the superintendent and other administrators simply thought Naomi’s “crime” warranted expulsion for the remainder of the school year and the threat of arrest should she so much as touch a tiny toe on school ground.
Normally, that would be the end of the road unless the parents involved complained, as the McKinney’s obviously did. Normally, some sort of review process is then invoked, often a hearing before the local school board, or in this case, some kind of review by a “hearing panel.” Regardless of which method was used, such panels commonly include one or more administrators. And again, an opportunity for rational adults to see that a blameless child was being foolishly and cruelly punished for what amounts to no more than possession of a harmless toy, and to correct that wrong, was ignored and compounded.
Consider that the school district would have had–almost immediately–the report of the local police department containing the information that the toy was just that, a toy and not a weapon under state law. Let us, for the moment, forget the utter absurdity of any adult being unable to understand that a transparent plastic toy gun–a broken toy gun–with its soft plastic pellets actually visible within it is not only not a weapon but is entirely harmless. Forget too the utter absurdity of the necessity of having to be told that by the police–college educated teachers, principals and administrators weren’t sure?–and then ignoring them.
The system failed utterly, and so it would have remained had Naomi’s parents not taken her plight to the media and the blogosphere. It was only a month of unrelenting pressure and rightful shaming of people who apparently have little capacity for feeling shame that forced Dr. Bynum, a man who not only ultimately approved Naomi’s banishment and threatened her with arrest on behalf of the citizens of Sumter for whom he works, to change his mind. Note, gentle readers, that it was likely not a change of heart or a realization of wrong doing, or of the harm he was causing Naomi, but nearly a month of unrelenting public embarrassment and ridicule that reversed the decision.
An adult–a man–would apologize, sincerely and in person, to Naomi and to her parents. But then, an adult wouldn’t have punished Naomi in the first place and surely wouldn’t have hunkered down for nearly a month. I doubt Mr. McKinney is holding his breath waiting for an apology; I won’t be holding mine either.
Let us not forget the role of the local school board. They had the power to reverse Naomi’s punishment at any moment, but apparently did nothing. It is possible it was their influence, rather than any pang of conscience on the part of Bynum, that caused Bynum to reverse himself, and if so, that is little better for it still took the putative adults of the district nearly a month to right a wrong that should never have been inflicted on an innocent little girl. I can’t resist any longer: talk about bullying, this case is the national poster child.
This is what happens when citizens forget their role as the ultimate guardians of democracy and allow politicians and bureaucrats–or in this case, educrats–to run amok without adult supervision. Perhaps some members of the local school board did try to reverse this travesty but were politically checked. That’s a matter for the citizens of Sumter to sort out, and sort it out they should at the next electoral opportunity to ensure no more witless zero tolerance policies, no more teachers who can’t tell the difference between a toy and a weapon, no more principals with no sense of proportion, no more school board members without the decency and intellect to speak up and right obvious wrongs, and no more administrators whose concern is for their pride and power rather than the welfare of six year-old girls.
So should it be everywhere.