After Littleton, perspective a casualty

May 06, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE MOTHER sat in her car on the parking lot at Windsor Farm Elementary School, in Annapolis, waiting for her fourth-grade son to exit class at day's end. Instead of the boy, though, there arrived Principal Wayne Bark.

"Could you please come in the building?" he said. "I have to talk to you about something that happened to your son."

"I thought he'd been beaten up," the mother said yesterday, recalling the events of recent days seen on television screens, of frightened children running from their school, of the vulnerability of all youth, and of the catastrophe in Colorado whose reverberations were felt in an elementary school in Anne Arundel County.

"There's a boy who's been beating him up," the mother said, "and I thought he'd done real damage this time. You get scared. You stop breathing. All kinds of things go through your head at a moment like this."

But nothing like the truth.

In the principal's office, the mother learned that her son, 9 years old, had drawn a gun on a piece of paper, and then he'd cut out the picture of the gun with scissors, and then he'd waved the floppy paper drawing of this gun in the air.

And for this, he was to be suspended from school.

"In the [See Olesker, 5b] office, Mr. Bark looked at [the son], and he said, 'You know why we shouldn't do something like this, don't you? You know what happened in Colorado, right? It's wrong to do that, isn't it?' My son was real quiet. He could hardly talk. He was afraid to say much of anything.

"I felt a sense of dread. My first reaction was like the principal's. 'Oh, my God, Colorado.' We all feel terrible about it. But then I thought, wait a minute, what are we talking about here? A piece of paper, right? And we're saying that in the same breath as Colorado? And then, at the end of the conversation, he told me they were suspending my son for the drawing."

We're all a little sensitive these days. We watch innocent lives being taken in a Colorado high school and, as we vow that such a thing won't happen in our communities, we find ourselves besieged by those morons who would take advantage of our anxieties, phoning in bomb threats, collecting explosives, packing real guns.

So we reinforce our vows, and we draw up official standards -- and sometimes, perhaps, we lose a sense of perspective and common sense.

Yesterday, Anne Arundel County school officials said Bark would not be allowed to comment on the incident or on the suspension. But, in a telephone conversation, school Superintendent Carol Parham said:

"In the environment we're in, there are great concerns. We put rules in place so we can intervene at an early level so that inappropriate behavior doesn't become a problem later. I don't think we overreacted.

"It's the media who make it difficult. If you have another Colorado, they'll say, 'Didn't anyone see this? What was he like in elementary school? Didn't you see it, didn't you stop it?' We're ridiculed. So I think my administrators responded accordingly."

And yet, there is this:

"When [Bark] told me he was suspending my son," the mother said yesterday, "I started feeling angry. I said, 'Wait a minute, you're suspending him for drawing, but you haven't suspended the boy who's physically assaulted him four different times.' He's been bullied and beaten up by a boy who's twice his size."

Yesterday, county school officials would only say, "Fighting or bullying is not tolerated. Appropriate disciplinary action has been taken."

"My child isn't perfect," the mother said yesterday. "Whose child is? But he's not a violent child. He's happy, he's outgoing, he loves to have fun. He chatters too much, we know. He has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, so he's impulsive and doesn't think things through the way he should.

"When we got him home from school, he was very upset. He has a Nintendo video game with a James Bond figure holding a gun. That's the gun he tried to draw in class. So my husband and I took away the video game because he's been spending too much time with it, and we grounded him for three days.

"But, honestly, I don't know if he makes the connection between the gun he drew, and something like Colorado. He's 9 years old. And all this has done is embarrass him and make him feel ashamed."

Cooler heads might have talked with the boy, or with his entire class, to make clear the connection between guns and the disaster in Colorado. But these are heated times. No one wants to be caught missing a signal. No one wants to be blamed for letting a tiny problem develop into a pathology.

But someone should be able to look at a child drawing a picture on a paper and ask: Where is the line between appropriate response and stigmatizing a child? Is this a portent of Colorado or only a child being childish?

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