Two 6-year-old students were suspended Thursday from White Marsh Elementary School, according to one boy's parents, for using their fingers as imaginary guns in what one parent calls a "childish game of cops and robbers in the schoolyard."
"This is easily the most ludicrous thing I have ever heard of," said Army Staff Sgt. Stephen Grafton, father of one of the first-graders. "This, a completely harmless act of horseplay at recess, was by no means an offense that warranted a suspension. It was a pair of 6-year-olds playing with imaginary pistols, one of whom has a father who is charged by the United States with using firearms in his defense."
The suspension in Talbot County comes on the heels of another Maryland student, also 6 years old, who was suspended from Roscoe R. Nix Elementary School in Silver Spring. This child was removed from his school for one day for aiming his finger at another student and saying "Pow." The student's parents hired an attorney, and the school reversed the suspension decision and removed it from his school record.
According to Grafton and Teri Bildstein, the child's mother, their son was playing at recess with another child and they were using their hands as imaginary guns. Another student reported them to staffers, who called Principal Marcia Sprankle. Sprankle recommended the boys be suspended, said Bildstein.
"The biggest concern we have right now is the consistency in discipline practices: What deserves a note home? What deserves a phone call to a parent? If he is in trouble for something like this now, what does this bode for the rest of his education at this school?" Bildstein said. "These are situations he could learn from and this is a severe punishment for this age. I want to know what the school board considers appropriate behavior and the appropriate consequences for a child his age."
When Bildstein and Grafton questioned their son, he said, "I was just playing. I don't understand …"
Bildstein said she and Grafton have a meeting arranged with Sprankle and other school administrators to discuss a situation she says has escalated beyond what she thinks is healthy for her child. This is her son's second suspension in his first-grade year, the other suspension for something she said is equally difficult to understand.
"He's so distressed at being sent home," she said. "It affects his self-esteem and his performance. If you tell him he is bad over something like this, how can this be the best learning environment for him? All of the work he has done and the efforts he and his teacher have made are gone in a minute when he gets kicked out of school. It's like saying, 'We give up on you.'"
Grafton said he is just as mystified over the suspension.
"As a squad leader in the U.S. Army Airborne Infantry, a large portion of my job for the last 11 years has been instilling discipline in young men and developing them into professional paratroopers, men their families and country can be proud of," he said. "While under no circumstances do I claim to be an expert in (school policy), I'd like to believe that the NCO's and officers … imparted enough wisdom to me that I can do the same for the next generation. That being said, I take the gravest issue with the course of action which Talbot County Public Schools has taken. This, a completely harmless act of horseplay at recess, was by no means an offense which warranted suspension."
Though the Talbot County Board of Education has not personally been involved with this concern with Grafton and Bildstein up to this point, it did issue the following statement:
"It is frustrating for school systems, because a complete explanation of events cannot be provided due to confidentiality requirements under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)."
Sprankle could not be reached for comment.
Bildstein said Sprankle called her and told her the suspension would be withdrawn and removed from her son's record. But she said she felt like Sprankle's action was more of a placating olive branch rather than the school saying they found no fault with her son.
"I'm not trying to make this a gun thing it takes away from the point," she said. "I understand (the administrators) are being sensitive to the circumstances. But these are children. They were playing at a game at recess and being kids …"
Grafton drove home his own point: "If anything, this was a teaching point, an opportunity to discuss with the boys and the remainder of the class the importance of not shooting at one another," he said. "Instead, the boys were removed from the playground and their parents instructed to immediately pick them up and any teaching opportunity was lost, an action which I interpret as either not having the ability to address the situation or not having the desire to. Neither of these are acceptable answers."
The decision to suspend the White Marsh first-graders comes in the midst of a Maryland school board effort to alter disciplinary policies statewide so fewer students are suspended. The Talbot County Board of Education voted in November to oppose the proposed changes to the state's discipline regulations, with local officials' noting concerns about several changes, including language that would prohibit "disciplinary policies that trigger automatic discipline without the use of discretion."
In April, the state board ruled that Talbot school officials failed to use appropriate discretion in spring 2011 when two lacrosse players were suspended for possessing a penknife and a lighter they were using to repair sports equipment. In that case, the state board said Talbot officials violated the county's own first offense policy.