An eighth-grade student in Maryland was suspended last week after administrators at his small private school discovered a social media post in which the young man posed with an airsoft gun.
The incident came to the media’s attention after the boy’s father, David Bernstein, published an editorial in the Washington Post criticizing the school for what he called its “punitive and counterproductive intervention.”
According to Bernstein, the boy had appeared in a video alongside another boy who was holding the airsoft gun. The school also discovered that the eighth-grader had posted a photo on Snapchat that depicted him being held in a headlock while another boy pointed the toy gun at his head.
After considering “the prior history of the student, their age and mitigating factors,” the school determined to suspend the boy for three weeks because his post—which he shared with 13 friends—may have impacted students with anxiety.
“We have to protect them,” the school’s principal told Bernstein when he went to plead for leniency.
Perhaps more interesting than the incident itself is the reaction of the boy’s father. Bernstein doesn’t appear to be what most would consider a Second Amendment advocate. He calls Congress’s unwillingness to impose new gun control laws a “national disgrace” and believes his son ought to have been suspended for three days.
But he also voices frustration at the willingness of school officials to criminalize students for even the most innocent references to firearms. By equating adolescent clowning with real violence, schools are more likely to increase anxiety, not diffuse it.
“In overstating the risk of shootings, school officials end up overreacting. A child who poses with a fake gun on social media — which is actually quite common — is not on the same risk continuum as a school shooter — which is extremely uncommon,” he writes.
“An unloaded airsoft gun is not one step away from an AK-47,” he continues. “It cannot turn into a real gun. A kid with poor enough judgment to pose with an airsoft gun is not one step away from shooting up his school with a real gun. He is one step away from being an adolescent knucklehead who needs, perhaps, three days of intense reflection.”
“Rather than protecting anyone from anxiety, this is the way to increase it: jump at every shadow, overreact to non-threats and pretend that they are no different from real ones.”
Though Bernstein claims his son does not have a history of misbehavior, this isn’t the first time the school has cracked down on a seemingly innocent offense.
“I first realized something was amiss at the school when I received a call earlier in the year about another ‘very serious’ incident,” Bernstein told Reason.com. “My son had told a friend that he observed a teacher texting while driving. He was then hauled into the principal’s office and asked to apologize to the teacher, which he only did reluctantly. ‘The teacher was very hurt,’ the principal stated. ‘And [your son] didn’t seem to care.’”
“Confused about the ‘crime,’ I asked the principal what if my son was telling the truth. ‘That’s beside the point,’ she said. ‘He violated our community values by hurting the teacher’s feelings.'”