7-year-old suspended for nibbling pastry into shape of a gun: Was this a gross overreaction, or a necessary step in combating school violence?

Mar 15, 2013

The father of a 7-year-old suspended from his Anne Arundel County school for nibbling his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun filed a formal appeal Thursday, asking that the second-grader's school records be wiped clean of the offense.

Was the school right for suspending the boy, and for refusing to take the incident off the boy's permanent record? Was this a gross over-reaction, or a necessary step in combating school violence?

Brad Hirschfield discussed this topic with readers.

- Anne Arundel second-grader suspended for chewing his pastry into the shape of a gun
- George F. Will: The Pop-Tart terrorist
- Appeal for Maryland 7-year-old suspended for nibbling pastry into shape of a gun

Let's start with the assumption that all people want to see our children safe and gun violence reduced. from those who support the NRA to those who believe that only the very narrowest understanding of the second amendment can be tolerated in contemporary society.  If we can't at least that, there is nothing about which to speak -- just another opportunity to lob verbal bombs at each other.


As to the case of the little boy with the" pop tart pisto", I think things have gotten out of control.  Ironically, the biggest damage resulting from the school's totally over the top reaction, could be in feeding the fears which fuel the arguments of those who fight virtually any regulation of weapons, amunition, or who should qualify to possess them.


Like so much of the current debate about guns in this country, neither side slows down long enough to allow  evidence or logic to get in the way of whatever point they are trying to make.  Let's see, if for the next hour at least, we can do better.

First, the kid was seven years old. That ought to count for a lot. Second, he chewed a pop-tart into the shape of a gun. That's hardly a safety problem. To suspend a 7-year-old for brings us back to the idiocy of the zero-tolerance policies that schools were finally beginning to abandon. I'd love to hear an argument from anyone that suspending this kid was the right thing to do. Should we also consider expelling children for writing the word "gun" in a school assignment?

You make two important points, and I would also offer one corrective.


First, you wisely point out that at least much more often than not, zero-tolerance programs lead to foolish and even dangerous rigidity, even undermining the very society they were intended to aid.


Second, you point out the the age of the "offender" should be taken into greater consideration.  Also seems more than reaonable as we typically do that even when kids use real pistols, not pastries.


The corrective?  That the issue is not simply one of addressing physical safety -- at least not in school.  Schools are educational settings, and as such, are about nurturing the healthy development of the students, not simply assuring their physical safety.  As such, one could reasonable argue that some response was in order here, but something punitive?  That just seems wrong.  and something as strong as a suspension?  That just seems nuts!

By a bunch of teachers and school administrators who arent fit to work at the drive thru at Mcds let alone teach are children. In NYC 80% of HS grads cant read. Hey Mayor Bloomberg, heck with 32oz sodas and gun control, lets work on education, cause lack of education and a good job leads to a life of crime and illegal handguns.

Unless you are offering yourself as an example of the the results of bad education, you may want to check the difference between "are children", as wrote, and "our children", which is what I think you intended.  Don't get me wrong, I am terrible speller so I make mistakes like that all the time.  The difference between you and I is that I don't blame supposedly incompetent teachers for everything that goes wrong -- at school or elsewhere.


You are simply factually in error regarding the 80% of NY HS grads not being able to read, as you are about how unqualified teachers are.  They are not perfect to be sure, and the public schools of this country are beset with a variety of problems including problems with some teachers, but what that has to do with this case, I am not sure.

The NY Post said that 100 students around the country have been suspended for creating their own versions of the Harlem Shake video. Clearly, we over-react to just about anything these days.

You are half right.  We both over act and over re-act, each one encourages the other.  We have a mass shooting in a school and then toss kids out of school for "toting" pastry-shaped pistols.  


A comment made by a parent in another case such as this one when objecting to their kid's suspention:  "It's not like we don't know guns are bad.  We do". Whoa!

We will NEVER have reasonable gun laws in this country if the debate is lead, as it now often is, by those who think guns are inherently good, and those who think they are inherently bad.  Guns are however, dangerous and we need people to acknowledge that too.

I abhor guns and wouldn't even to to someone's home if I knew they had a gun there. But, to consider it an offense for a little boy to chew a gun out of a pop-tart is utterly absurd. He must be a real artist. I can't chew my pop-tart to look like anything and I'm a 68 year old woman. Getting back to the issue: when are adults in the school system going to act like adults and show some flexibility and brains? I'm so glad I don't have young kids in my life; their lives are help up to a scrutiny that little ones shouldn't have to endure.

Flexibility and the brains to use it.  You are a wise 68 year old woman -- even if you can't make pastry art! 


I think the brittleness we are seeing -- on both sides of this issue -- is driven by the incredible fear and mistrust which permeates so much of our culture.  Unless we address that, then it will be hard to follow your advice.  Let's hope that conversations like this help.

I definitely think this incident was an over-reaction on the part of the school. They obviously haven't been trained on what signs to look for in their students that are real signs of threats as opposed to kids being kids and occasionally doing dumb stuff. That said, I honestly can't conjure up too much righteous anger against them. Schools are running scared with regard to guns. It may be irrational in part, but given the intense nature of what happened at Sandy Hook and other school shootings, it's a bit harder for me to judge from the safety of my office cubicle.

We agree about the "rightous anger", at least about it being misplaced, but please don't allow understand of the fear people feel post-Sandy Hook, to become an excuse for foolish rules, foolishly applied.  This is especially important as you must know that this case is being trotted out to scare people about the "real intentions" of all people who support stricter gun laws.  So ironically, in the name of getting guns out of school, the school gave a great counter-argument to their own opponents!

I am surprised you did not call out the commenter who said she would not even go into a house that had a gun. Maybe it is because I grew up in a rural area, but I assume every house I go into has a gun and that anyone I talk to may have a concealed weapon.

I am not sure that I like your assumptions any better than hers!  And the reason that I did not mention it, is simply that I can't take the time to respond to every element of each comment or question.


Interestingly, and disturbingly to me, your two sets of assumptions reflect a new trend in America:  we have few gun owners and yet own, as a nation, far more guns.  Actually, that should trouble us all as it reflects a growing polarization over an issue -- gun violence -- that will require everyone at the table, and everything on the table, if we hope to address it meaningfully.

Why can't schools focus on educating students? I have read reports of students being suspended for things totally unrelated to behavior. A boy with long hair is suspended because his hair goes below his collar, somthing acceptable for girls. A girl with red streaks in her hair is suspended. A boy who points his finger at other kids on the playground is suspended. A kid shapes breakfast pastry is suspended. How can schools teach kids if they are constantly looking for minor reasons to suspend them. Being a child is a time to explore and discover new things. Sometimes, you need to be allowed to make a mistake before you can learn a lesson. These schools are preventing children from learning.

I don't know about them preventing the little boy from learning, but you are right that too often we make rules when we feel powerless to do anything else, and implement them most strictly when we feel most out of control.


It would have been interesting to use the pastry gun incident as way to talk to the kids about guns, what real fears they may have in light of stories they know or have heard the adults in their lives discussing.  Certainly, no good came from throwing a liitle kid out of school because he played with his food!  Not to mention that the "offending pastry" was supplied by the school's breakfast program!  Maybe the school should be held accountable for arming minors, or at least for providing "weapons grade materiel"!!

I'm a parent of two children who attend Douglas MacArthur and take the bus. A child was suspended after bringing a toy gun to school at least twice and showing it to other kids. In that case, a suspension seemed warranted. The school has a firm and fair policy: do not bring a gun (toy, BB, or real) to school. Arresting the kid seemed like a gross over-reaction. I'm less than entirely sympathetic to the parents as we have to check our childrens' backpacks every day for schoolwork, communication from the teacher, etc. The parent should know what is in the backpack and the child shouldn't be slipping in toys without permission.

You are making a real and important distinction.  Toy guns can, and often do, look very real.  And if that is true, as it has been for trained police officers, imagine how real they can look to other kids.  Clearly not the case with a jam-filled treat. 


BTW, especially when dealing with kids, a BB gun is plenty real.  No, not typically as devastating as one which fires bullets, but catch a bb in the eye and you will be devastated by the results.

Is this a serious question? It was a pastry. The boy was 7-years-old. The reason it made national headlines was that this was a ridiculous over-reaction. If it was reasonable, it wouldn't have been in the news.

It is a serious question because it is being taken seriously enough to warrant being fought over in court.  So, like it or not, it reflects some real tensions and terrors -- some well-placed and others not, about guns in our society.  THAT'S why a case that should have been seen as silly, wasn't, and that is why we are taking this conversation very seriously.

I don't see any conversation about the schools (purposeful) demonization of guns by not allowing even photos or their image on a t-shirt. Guns are not evil. They save lives as well as take them. If this 7-year-old was my kid and they suspended him for such nonsense I would hound the administrators and make their lives a living hell.

You see, I think that the point.  When people who are okay with weapons talk about "hounding" other human beings and "making their lives a living hell", lot's of other folks get nervous, and not entirely without reason.


As someone who acknowledges that guns both take and save lives -- though the latter is mostly achieved by taking or threatening to take yet other lives -- you would do well to make your case in a less threatning way.  That is, of course, unless you want those who may disagree with you about guns, to have their worst fears about gun-supporters confirmed and sight even harder to curtail what I bet you think of as constitutional rights.  In other words, you are working against yourself.

As a strong supporter of the individual right to keep and bear arms, whenever I hear gun control supporters talking about "common sense" regulations, these incidents such as hapened to this 7-year-old are the things I think about. Government is not good about "common sense" things.

Well, since we elect those who govern, if gov't is not, as you claim, good at common sense, then we should all look in the mirror.  The gov't is us! 


Of course, you are correct that we often confuse what is commonly or widely believed with that which is truly sensible.  In that vein, I would sugges that whatever view one takes regarding the issue of guns, it't worth re-checking you assumptions i,e, the "common sense" of your community and those who share your views.  In both camps, we see plenty of example where nobody wants anything like facts to make them reconsider an already fiercely held position. 

I am really bothered by the fall back position of zero tolerance. "Well that's the way we have to do it because that's our policy." This is the biggest excuse for avoiding responsible thought and action. But that way, they can't be held responsible for bad/stupid decisions. This type of thought is everywhere.

100% correct.  While there are examples of zero-tolerance positions for a few things, they are mostly examples of what you describe so well -- excuses for not taking the time and thought needed to work out policies that make sense, accept that context counts, and that rarely are any two cases exactly the same.


It's not that am opossed to rules and norms.  In fact, without them, we come apart, both as individuals and as a society.  But the more norms and rules we have, the more interpreters and interpretations we need.  It's arguably the animate premise behind our Constitutional system, and with all of it's flaws, it's a pretty good system!

When my daughter was three or four, she held up two pieces of paper she had cut out all by herself and said, "Look mommy, here are my guns!" I explained that we didn't allow guns in our house because they could hurt people. "Okay," she said, "Then look at the chairs I made. My shooting chairs." She is now twenty-one, and has never shown the slightest tendency toward violence. She was just mirroring the gun culture all around her, as was the little boy with the pop-tart pistol. We've created this situation; let's not punish the children who are reflecting back our reality.

Wow, you threw me a curve!  I thought you would have said that there seems to be some fascination that most, if not all, kids have with guns.  Actually there is plenty of evidenc to support that conclusion.  Instead you made a claim that it's society's fault.  Unfortunately, for you, there is less evidence of that, or that kids interest in guns necessarily leads to violence.


Let me be clear, I am a supporter of stronger AND smarter gun laws.  Any argument that places the reason for any complex issue -- be it gun violence or child development -- in one place only, is playing a very dangerous game. 


Simple answers to complex questions are seductive, especially when the question is as scary as gun violence.  They promise to make the problem go away.  Unfortunately, simple answers to complex questions are also almost always wrong.  I really hope that everyone from those who imagine that we need no legislation regarding weapons, to those who defend the absurdity of punishing a little boy for "brandishing" a pastry -- however it is shaped -- bear that in mind.

Well, we are about out of time, but thanks as always for your interesting comments and compelling questions.


Don't forget that we can continue this conversation when you follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield, or find me on facebook.



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Bradley Hirschfield
Brad Hirschfield is a public ethicist, author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by Beliefnet.com, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see www.bradhirschfield.com.
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