On their face, the facts of this case are absurd: A 12-year-old Shawnee Mission School District student allegedly forms a gun with her fingers, points the make-believe weapon at four of her classmates, one at a time, and then turns it on herself.
Despite the absence of any actual deadly weapon, a school resource officer employed by the Overland Park Police Department hauls the Westridge Middle School student away in handcuffs and arrests her. Prosecutors somehow see fit to charge her with the felony offense of threatening.
That alone calls into question the judgment of prosecutors, police, school officials and anyone who could have asked: Are we really going to arrest a 12-year-old girl for a hand gesture?
But then, layer in the fact that just last month, two 13-year-old Hocker Grove Middle School students showed up to school with guns — the kind that can actually kill people — hidden inside their backpacks. In the very same school district, when very real firearms were involved, no felony charges were filed.
Officials, who wouldn’t disclose how the two students were disciplined, said there was no evidence to suggest the teenagers planned to use the guns at school. Both were charged in juvenile court with possession of a firearm, a misdemeanor.
So, let me get this straight: Bringing a gun on campus is a misdemeanor? But threatening someone with few half-cocked fingers is a felony with potentially life-altering consequences?
Did I miss something here? It sure seems like school and law enforcement officials did.
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said he could not comment on the specifics of any case, but the fact that threatening violence to a person is a felony, and a juvenile in possession of a gun is a misdemeanor “doesn’t make sense to a lot of people.” That issue would need to be addressed by the Kansas Legislature, though.
Citing privacy laws, Shawnee Mission school officials declined to discuss the latest incident but said the district didn’t arrest the student. Police wouldn’t comment on the case.
David Smith, a spokesman for the school district, said the district does not have a specific policy addressing finger guns.
The arrest of the student has “nothing to do with our (intimidation and bullying) policy,” Smith said. “Law enforcement made that decision.”
Beyond the apparent inequities between the two cases, the finger gun episode also highlights the unintended consequences of overly rigid and ultimately illogical zero-tolerance policies as school districts face the terrifying specter of gun violence.
I endured a similar experience years ago in Warrensburg, Missouri, when I was a college student and the single father of a 6-year-old son.
In the fall of 1999, Toriano II was a first-grader. And after moving from a predominantly black school in north St. Louis to a largely white one, he struggled with culture shock at the beginning of the semester. Eventually, though, he found his footing with new friends.
One day, while playing with one of those classmates, my son pointed his finger at another student, and, according to the teacher, mouthed the words: “Boom, you’re dead.”
I received a pager alert from the teacher with a 911 behind the number, signifying that the matter was urgent. When school officials told me what Toriano II had done, I said, “He’s just a kid. That’s how they play where he is from.”
But just months after the tragic Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, school officials weren’t amused.
My son was suspended from school for three days, and I was left to ponder what in the world had just occurred. Was my 6-year-old child actually being punished for playing cops and robbers?
As a parent, I would have been devastated if authorities had taken him off school grounds in handcuffs, as the 12-year-old wielding a finger gun was. There is no undoing that level of trauma for a child, said Annette Lantz-Simmons, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution.
In the wake of far too many school shootings, officials must be hyper-vigilant about any perceived threat to students, teachers or staff. But the decision to arrest a middle school student for pointing fingers simply defies common sense.
“I get that everyone is fearful,” Lantz-Simmons said. “But punishment doesn’t work to change behavior, and it doesn’t create more safety. In fact, probably the opposite. There is a way to change thinking and behavior and get people who cause harm to see the human consequences of their behavior without ruining their lives and their future.”
And make no mistake, that 12-year-old child’s life has been forever changed by this arrest. Who knows what trauma she has endured before or since?
“I think that this is something that probably could have been handled in the principal’s office and got completely out of hand,” Jon Cavanaugh, the girl’s grandfather, told The Star. “She was just mouthing off.”
Surely school officials and police could have taken steps to address her behavior, consider why she acted out and assess her mental health. The fact that a person familiar with the incident said that another student had asked the girl who she would choose if she could kill five people in the class raises even more questions.
Pointing a finger gun at classmates and then yourself is a cry for help — not a criminal act of violence.