The “zero tolerance” stories just don’t stop, despite court decisions and legislators demanding “common sense.” A 2″ hunk of plastic isn’t a gun, unless you’re a hysterical grade school principal who demands that 9-year-olds in your care sign confessions when they bring a toy to school.
From True’s 7 February 2010 issue:
The Weight of the Evidence
Patrick Timoney, 9, was playing with Legos at lunch time at Public School 52 on Staten Island, N.Y. He particularly liked the policeman figure, since his father is a retired cop. But the boy was hauled into the principal’s office for possession of a gun — the tiny plastic one held by the Lego policeman. “They made me sign a statement,” the tear-stained fourth-grader said. “She told me to write that I had a gun,” he said. “She said, ‘A gun is a gun’.” The boy’s mother had something to say about that. “This principal is a bully and a coward, and needs to be held accountable,” said Laura Timoney, 44. “Why didn’t anyone step up with an ounce of common sense and put an end to the harassment of my child?” (New York Daily News) …That’s your job now. It’s time to sue.
That principal, Evelyn Mastroianni, doesn’t have to rely on her own prejudices to figure out what to do with toy guns. I was able to locate a copy of the New York City’s Department of Education Citywide Standards of Discipline and Intervention Measures, subtitled “The Discipline Code and Bill of Student Rights and Responsibilities” for K-12 (Kindergarten through 12th Grade).
The copy I found (download here; PDF, 299K) is dated September 2008, and since I couldn’t find a later one I suppose it’s still current. At the very least, it shows that someone in the city’s Department of Education has been urging some level of common sense for some time.
To begin with (p3), school officials are told that “prior to determining the appropriate disciplinary and/or intervention measures, the following must be considered: the student’s age, maturity, and previous disciplinary record….” (bolding and underlining from the original). There were no indications in any of the reports I read that Patrick Timoney had any sort of discipline problems before, and in fact he loved school.
In the section on “Level 4” infractions (p16) for Kindergarten through Grade 5, which outlines that it is an infraction to possess “any weapon as defined in Category II”, the policy goes on to urge:
Before requesting a suspension for possession of an article listed in Category II for which a purpose other than infliction of physical harm exists, e.g., a nail file, the principal must consider whether there are mitigating factors present. In addition, the principal must consider whether an imitation gun is realistic looking by considering factors such as its color, size, shape, appearance and weight.
Actual Common Sense
The principal “must consider whether there are mitigating factors present”? What a concept! And note it says must, not “should.” And the principal must “consider whether an imitation gun is realistic looking by considering factors such as its color, size, shape, appearance and weight.”
In other words, a gun is not a gun is not a gun: its color, size, shape, appearance and weight must also be considered before declaring a toy gun is a “weapon.”
(A “Category I” weapon includes a real gun; “Category II” includes imitation guns but, again, only after consideration of its color, size, shape, appearance and weight.)
The policy uses common sense; the principal did not.
All of these requirements “must” be considered before getting to the “Range of Possible Disciplinary Responses” to the infractions outlined in DOE policy:
D. Parent conference
E. In-school disciplinary actions (e.g., exclusion from extracurricular activities, recess or communal lunchtime)
F. Removal from classroom by teacher (After a student is removed from any classroom by any teacher three times during a semester or twice in a trimester, a principal’s suspension must be sought if the student engages in subsequent behavior that would otherwise result in a removal by a teacher.)
G. Principal’s suspension
H. Superintendent’s suspension that results in immediate reinstatement
I. Superintendent’s suspension that results in continued suspension for a fixed period of 6-10 school days
J. Superintendent’s suspension that results in extended suspension for 30 to 90 school days with an automatic review for early reinstatement after 30 or 60 school days
(There is no A-C.)
One doesn’t get to this list until the principal considers the factors that she “must,” and then the first suggested “response” is a parental conference — and in this case, even that would be an overreaction.
“A principal has the authority to suspend a student for 1-5 days when a student’s behavior presents a clear and present danger of physical injury to the student, other students or school personnel,” the policy clearly explains (p26), “or prevents the orderly operation of classes or other school activities.”
With That, Look at the Evidence
Now look at this photo of the toy in question and consider whether it’s a weapon which “realistically” represents a “clear and present danger” of physical injury to students, thus requiring an immediate suspension. Note the photo is (depending on your monitor) probably larger than life:
If Ms Mastroianni truly thinks this is capable of shooting a student and causing injury, she’s in severe need of retraining; a student teacher should have enough experience to know what to do when confronted with this outside of classroom hours: enjoy an innocent child’s playtime. I’ll bet Ms Mastroianni considers herself a “professional” educator, too! Yet she doesn’t have the sense of a first-year teacher.
Course of Action
What Mastroianni did constitutes not just an overreaction, but an outrageous overreaction — “actionable” in lawsuit parlance. The kid wasn’t playing with the toy in class, it was during his lunch hour. There’s no indication he was “shooting” at anyone with the “gun,” either. There’s absolutely no justification for the reaction she had.
Laura Timoney, the boy’s mother, agrees: “You don’t traumatize a child who loved to go to school, who wanted to be early every day to school, you don’t make him cry, you don’t make him fill out statements,” she said in a TV interview, her eyes filling with tears. “You don’t do it.”
Yet that is exactly what the school did. It terrorized a child in its care — for nothing. He was treated as a criminal, made to sign a confession of trumped-up charges, and his spirit was destroyed. And if the school doesn’t make this right, it’s time for a lawsuit. And another in the next case, and another in the case after that, until school officials get it through their thick heads that they’re there to protect and nurture children, not destroy them.
But Ms Timoney should be warned: a lawsuit is a long and expensive process, as we’ve seen in previous cases. They’re not for the timid.
“The Citywide Standards of Discipline holds students accountable for their behavior,” the school policy reads (p3).
That’s fine, if done in an age-appropriate way, as the policy urges. So will Principal Mastroianni be held accountable for her destructive behavior? When?
After the story brought “widespread attention” to the ridiculous punishment of Patrick Timoney, his mother Laura Timoney got a call from the school superintendent — and the principal. She said it was too little, too late.
“The principal called me and said, ‘I’m sorry, I never meant for it to go this far,'” she said. “She sounded upset. I think she is sorry that this is happening. I wish she was sorry for Patrick.”
“The principal made an error in judgment by overreacting when the toy was found,” said New York City Education Department spokesman Matthew Mittenthal. He said the principal also apologized to Patrick, but the boy said (in 2010) that since that day, “The principal hasn’t spoken to me at all.”
When a reporter went to the school to get a statement from the principal, a school security guard “chased the reporter off.”
But the school rescinded the suspension. Maybe someone read the district policy to Principal Mastroianni.
When I checked in late 2018, she was no longer the school’s principal, and one site said she was replaced when school opened in the fall of that year.
But Ms. Timoney? As of September 2016 (and still in late 2018), she was the Deputy Director of Education in the Office of the Staten Island Borough President. That’s one way for a parent to force some common sense into the school system!
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