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A warning to parents I never received

On Thursday, Feb. 21, I received a phone call from the principal of Meadville Elementary School. She started the conversation saying she had my son in the office, and she was going to let him tell me what happened.

My son who is in the second grade got on the phone and was crying so bad that I could not understand a word he said. So she got back on the phone and told me that he was one of the 14 who she had caught with a plastic tube that was being used as a “spitball shooter.”

She said that some child had learned to make them on the Internet and apparently had been selling them and had made a profit. Others also had started to make them and give them away. 

These “spitball shooters” were made out of hulled out lead pencils and ink pens where the ends were cut off (very much like a straw that they use at lunch), and some of the materials were even bought from the school book store. 

She informed me that not only were some of them shooting paper out of them, but that other students had been using hard plastic pellets and were shooting them on the bus and others during physical education class.

That Thursday morning is when we were told it all came about following a bus incident that had occurred earlier that morning.  She then proceeded to tell me that our son would be receiving a discipline notice (yellow slip) and a one-day suspension from school for having possession of the tube.

I hung up the phone in disbelief and thought about what she said for a few minutes and then called the school back.  I asked her if he just had it on him or if he actually used it, and she told me that he did not use it, but that he had possession of the “spitball shooter.”

She told me it was “technically considered a weapon, and she could have charged my son with possession of a weapon.” She wrote the codes for these yellow slips to the students either as “disruption of class” or “disruption on the bus,” yet my child was on the playground when it was given to him. 

At the time of my conversation with the principal I did not know this, but the yellow slip actually reads “Having possession of a spitball shooter.” It did not say he had the shooter and pellets.  

I then asked how did he get the “spitball shooter” because I am one of those moms who checks my children’s book bags at night and every morning to make sure they don’t have any electronics or anything that should not be in there before taking them to school.  I knew that when he left our home, he did not have it in his possession. 

She told me that “there was no doubt he got it at school.” This is the point where she told me my son told her someone in his class gave it to him on the playground at P.E. He said he did not use it but stuck it in his pocket and that one of the coaches even saw him with it and sent him to the office with it.  

I had so many questions running through my mind that I called back two other times to talk to the principal to ask questions as I thought of them, explaining my concern to her as a parent. 

I mean my child is an honor roll student who until that day had never been sent to the office for anything other than being sick. Only a very few times this whole school year did he not receive a “green smiley face” because of talking in class or in the hall. 

I told her all of this, and she told me “there were a lot of good students who got written up as well as suspended, and this was also their first offense.” 

Just so you know, in our Meadville Elementary Student/Parent Handbook it states that “Discipline notices (yellow slips) will be issued to students who are disruptive or continually break classroom, school or bus rules. Parents/Guardians will be notified that a problem exists when a discipline notice is issued if they can be reached by telephone. Please read the code of conduct carefully so you will be aware of the expectations for student’s behavior and the consequences when students choose not to exercise control. The following consequences will be applied at the principal’s discretion:

“1st  Discipline Notice- telephone call to parents, counseling with principal and writing to be signed by parent/guardian.

“2nd Discipline Notice- telephone call to parents, counseling with principal and removal from physical education for one to five days or assigned to an alternative classroom for a period of time or the entire day.

“**3rd Discipline Notice- telephone call to parents, 1-5 day suspension from school and a parent conference required.

“4th Discipline Notice- telephone call to parents 1-10 day suspension from school and a parent conference required.”  

May I remind you once again my child has never been sent to the office for any kind of trouble, much less a yellow slip or being suspended. 

Needless to say our son got the very same punishment as the ones who were shooting the pellets out of these tubes that someone simply gave him on the playground. 

The last time I called back to the school, I questioned why the principal didn’t do a school-wide search and search their backpacks, but she told me she could not do that. 

However all parents, teachers and students, if you will refer to the Meadville Elementary Handbook, it states “School authorities reserve the right to search lockers, desks or other facilities as well as individuals and their belongings when there is reasonable suspicion for believing that items may violate the law or school policy or which may be harmful to the community may be found.” 

So is this not a reason to search backpacks if these were considered weapons?  

I have a problem with the extreme action that was taken as punishment for my child and many others because I know my child did not even know that it could be considered a “weapon.” He thought this “invention” was a toy, and so he took it, and I even expressed this to the principal that he did not even know it could harm anyone.

Her response to me was “Oh I think he did.” I told her “No ma’am he did not and if I would have had the opportunity to tell him the possible danger of putting plastic pellets into a tube and shooting them out, I would have, because we have discussed guns, knives, bow and arrows and such before.”  

I never in a million years would have thought that just because someone gave my son a hulled out pen or pencil that it would have caused him to get a yellow slip and suspended. I even asked her what if one of the older ones would have given one to my other little boy who was in kindergarten, would you also have suspended him too?  

She said “yes.”

There was no forewarning to the parents in letter or any form letting us know this was an issue so that we could properly teach our children right from wrong concerning this issue. However, we did receive a note home a while back stating how the students could not wear perfume or cologne due to allergies. 

What I would like to know is, if this was such an issue, why was no note immediately sent home that Thursday with all the other children who did not get in trouble that day stating there is an issue, and that these things can be considered a “weapon,” and students could risk being charged as so, if brought to school. 

There was no instant alert message, but yet they can send them to us as a reminder of PTO meetings and fundraisers. 

How is it that before this drastic measure of punishment was taken out on our children that no bus driver or teacher had any knowledge of this? 

When I looked up the word weapon on Wikipedia, it states: “A weapon, arm, or armament is a device or equipment used in order to inflict damage or harm to enemies or other living beings, structures, or systems. Weapons are used to increase the efficacy and efficiency of activities such as hunting, crime, law enforcement, self-defense and warfare. In a broader context, weapons may be construed to include anything used to gain a strategic, material or mental advantage over an adversary.  While ordinary objects such as sticks, stones or cars can be used as weapons, many are expressly designed for the purpose – ranging from simple implements such as clubs to swords and guns and on to complicated modern intercontinental ballistic missiles, biological and cyberweapons. Almost anything can be used as a weapon, such as an iron rack for hanging clothes to a pencil, but most people don’t refer to these as ‘weapons’ as they are inconvenient to try to use.”  

So this is my question to you, must we remove all pencils and pens from schools and only allow them to do work on computers, must we take their forks on their lunch trays or how about the straws they drink out of that look much like the hulled out pen or pencil that my son just simply had in his pocket and never even used? 

I feel assured this was all innocent because in the write up for Monday, Feb. 25, in The Gazette-Virginian, the principal’s statement was “The students were calling the pellets spitballs, but all I ever saw were the plastic bbs,” said Barczak. 

So does this not tell us that it was all innocent, and they did not fully understand the severity of the situation because they were calling them “spitballs,” and not all children who were involved had the plastic pellets. Some were simply wet pieces of paper, and some simply had the tubes and never used them. 

My concern is that parents were not aware to properly be able to address their children and to forewarn them and be able teach our children that this was not acceptable. 

So to parents, this is the warning that I did not receive. Please inform your children of this incident before your child receives this same extreme punishment not knowing that this is not a toy that can be considered a weapon.

Melanie Strohm lives in Nathalie and is the mother of five children.