Melinda Henneberger

Funny, but JoCo 13-year-old arrested for finger gun just looked like shy kid in court

The slight 13-year-old who was charged with a felony for pointing her finger at four classmates and pretending to shoot them and then herself appeared in court on Tuesday in Overland Park.

Maybe that was a real killer in the glasses and pink sweater, holding tight onto her grandpa, who in turn kept squeezing her shoulder to offer reassurance. (“Always say, ‘Yes, your honor,’ ’’ he whispered at one point.)

But she sure did a great impersonation of a shy little kid, shaking slightly as she stood before the bench. When the judge mentioned that the girl’s mom, who recently moved to Norway, could join the next hearing by phone if that made sense given the time difference, the girl raised her hand, as if in class, and waited for the judge to call on her before offering in a small voice that Oslo is nine hours ahead of where she’s been living these last weeks, with her grandfather in California.

If she’s not the perennially picked-on lover of kittens and gun control that her family has described, this spontaneous display of diffidence was a diabolically canny touch.

But that scenario is about as convincing as Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez’ insistence that eighth graders at Westridge Middle School in the Shawnee Mission district are “generally in fear of this individual.”

According to her mother, she’s been bullied for some time — punched in the face on the school bus, and left sobbing in the lunchroom. On Sept. 18, after a boy asked tauntingly which five people in the class she’d shoot if she could, she answered by pointing her finger at him, several others, and finally herself: Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

The next day, somebody reported on the bullying tip line that she’d absolutely terrified her schoolmates with this gesture. Were these whistleblowers the same bullies who’d provoked her in the first place?

Either way, she should never have been put in handcuffs. You’d think that turning a pretend gun on herself would have prompted a call to counselors rather than cops.

The girl’s mother, Vanessa McCaron, says the school’s resource officer told her that “I will press charges against anyone who I think has broken the law.”

According to court documents, the girl “unlawfully and feloniously communicated a threat to commit violence, with the intent to place another in fear, or with the intent to cause the evacuation, lock down or disruption in regular, ongoing activities.” Chilling.

Donchez maintains that it’s those of us who see the police action as excessive who have acted too hastily when we should have just trusted that they know best.

Only, charging her with a felony never made any sense. If police and prosecutors really find her as menacing as they’ve suggested she is in defending the kind of get-a-load-of-this overreaction that keeps Fox News in business, then why did they offer her a chance to apply for diversion at Tuesday’s hearing?

Thank goodness they did, instead of putting her in detention for a year to prove a point. But one danger of having cops in schools is that they can tend to see all kinds of kid problems through a criminalizing, law enforcement lens.

And if school resource officers arrested every student who did something another middle schooler saw as threatening, criminal justice reform would have no chance at all.

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Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.