BB gun incidents overblown

LEGISLATORS INVOLVED — Louisiana's Legislature has passed legislation telling the state's 69 school districts how to set policy after two young students were suspended for having BB guns in their rooms at home while taking online classes.

Who would have ever thought a youngster could be expelled or suspended for having a BB gun in his bedroom while involved in an online class from his school? Yes, it happened in Louisiana, and it has happened elsewhere.

To make matters even worse, the incident has become the subject of a proposed bill in the Louisiana Legislature. Have we lost our senses when dealing with issues like this one?

The Advocate reported on Sept. 23 that Ka’Mauri Harrison, 9, a fourth grader at Woodmere Elementary School in Harvey in Jefferson Parish, was taking a virtual class in his bedroom on Sept. 11 when his younger brother came into the room and tripped over a BB gun.

Ka’Mauri leaned away from his English test, grabbed the unloaded weapon and put it next to his chair, away from his brother but in view of the computer camera that showed the scene to his teacher and classmates. Ka’Mauri was facing suspension or possible expulsion.

Nyron Harrison and Thelma Williams, Ka’Mauri’s parents, say their privacy rights were violated and their son wasn’t given due process. Their appeal of his suspension was rejected, and they considered filing a lawsuit in state court.

Harrison said he told school officials it was a BB gun, not an actual rifle. He said he bought the gun for his son and had taught him how to use it properly and safely. He said the gun wasn’t loaded and his son was just moving it to get it out of the way.

The Advocate said a 12-year-old boy in Colorado was suspended earlier in September after he picked up a neon-green toy gun during a virtual class. A similar incident happened in New Jersey with a sixth grader.

Another BB gun incident occurred last month, also in Jefferson Parish. Tomie Brown, 11, was suspended. The sixth grader at Grand Isle School was taking a virtual science class at home Sept. 9 when he showed a BB gun to some of his friends during a virtual lesson.

The teacher didn’t see the gun, but heard other kids mention it, according to discipline documents provided by the boy’s attorney. The teacher said Tomie realized he had made a mistake, and in her opinion he wasn’t making a threat or threatening anyone.

OK, so why didn’t the incident just end there with some disciplinary words from the teacher and some comments to other students about the need to never let guns be involved in learning — at home or in the classroom.

Tim Brown, Tomie’s dad, said, “I was shocked. They considered his bedroom part of the Jefferson Parish school system.” He said his son has returned to school, but he’s not enthusiastic about it like he once was.

That is no surprise because of the bad publicity his son received that he didn’t deserve. And taking the issue to the Legislature has given the incident even more widespread publicity.

Rep. Troy Romero, R-Jennings, is sponsor of House Bill 83 that deals with this issue. It passed the House 96-0 on Oct. 13, and was amended and approved by the Senate Education Committee Tuesday. It was on the digest for a final Senate vote Wednesday.

The legislation would allow students to appeal suspensions, not just expulsions, to the school board and to district court in cases where the original punishment was expulsion. It would require all 69 school districts statewide to overhaul their discipline policies to account for the expansion of distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Senate Education Committee added an amendment that would allow the award of reasonable attorney fees if any school official acted in a “grossly negligent manner.” The school board would also have to issue an official apology letter to the student, his parent, guardian, or tutor, and be retained in the student’s records.

What a shame it is that incidents like those mentioned here went this far. Have school officials forgotten how to resolve issues without threatening to suspend or expel vulnerable, young students over trivial incidents like these?

The school boards in these situations didn’t handle their jobs well, but they are the public officials who were elected to fix their own problems. If they can’t do it, voters can elect other school board members who can.

Republican members of the current Legislature love to get involved in the business of other elected officials. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is their prime target, but they don’t hesitate to take on school board members and others.

I am not a gun person, but I am sure I had a BB gun at a young age. Many young boys do. I can understand how a youngster might forget or not have been told about the accepted way to handle firearms, even BB guns, during an online lesson.

Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, labeled the original incident appalling in how it was handled by school leaders. “It seems like common sense was lacking from this entire situation,” he said.

Give Rep. Carter an A-plus.

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