In March, a 13-year-old boy was suspended from middle school in a North Carolina school district for drawing stick-figures, including a cartoon Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle wielding swords, a figure with rifle, a magician, a car, and a tower with a bow and arrow. The Rutherford Institute is demanding that the Roseboro-Salemburg Middle School rescind the two-day suspension, arguing that the sanction is excessive and an infringement of the student’s First Amendment right of expression. Attorneys for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit advocacy law firm, also argue that the drawings were not seen by other students, did not cause any disruption at school, did not threaten anyone, and had no impact on anyone’s safety.

The incident occured in early February, before the February 14 mass shooting by a teenaged male shooter at a Parkland, Florida, high school.

In a press release, John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, observed on Thursday, “There are hundreds of cases like this around the nation involving young people who are being suspended, expelled, and even arrested under school policies that criminalize childish behavior and punish all offenses severely, no matter how minor the so-called infraction may be.” While Whitehead said that keeping schools safe is important, he said that “...it is far better to see something credible done about actual threats, rather than this ongoing, senseless targeting of childish behavior that poses no threat, causes no disruption and is a creative and healthy part of childhood.”

According to the Rutherford Institute, the 7th grade son of James Herring began doodling on notebook paper after finishing his assignments and waiting for the rest of his class to finish. When the classroom teacher saw the drawings, they were confiscated and the student was taken to the principal’s office. Once there, the student, who had not been subject to discipline previously, was suspended for two days. School officials did not warn the student or consult with the student’s parents before imposing the suspension. 

While the student handbook provides that a suspension is allowed for first-time offenses such as fighting, threatening students or staff, or possession of a dangerous object, Rutherford Institute attorneys point out that “there is simply no evidence suggesting that a drawing of individually posed stick figures with swords and a gun with no other context could rise to the same level of severity as threats of violence or actual violence against others.” Additionally, Institute attorneys contend that the suspension violated the student’s First Amendment right to engage in expression, including drawing, that does not cause disruption in the school.

Defending the school’s action, the superintendant of the school district said that educators must be “extra vigilant” because of recent school shootings and other gun violence gripping America.

Referring to the doodles, Herring observed in an interview with ABC-13, "When I see that, I see a normal 13-year-old boy." Herring thinks the school administrators went overboard. He said, "I drew pictures like this. Any other person of this age drew drawings like this. It's nothing to get expelled from school for."

Superintendent of Sampson County Schools Eric Bracy told ABC-13 that the child’s drawings were in violation of school policy. “Due to everything happening in the nation, we're just being extra vigilant about all issues of safety,” he said.

In his letter to Bracy, Whitehead wrote:

“By treating all students as suspects and harshly punishing kids for innocent mistakes, schools set themselves and their students up for failure—not only by focusing on the wrong individuals and allowing true threats to go undetected, but also by treating young people as if they have no rights, thereby laying the groundwork for future generations that are altogether ignorant of their rights as citizens and are unprepared to defend them.”

Whitehead quoted authors Russ Skiba and Reece Peterson, who wrote The Dark Side of Zero Tolerance: Can Punishment Lead to Safe Schools?, on the ramifications of harsh punishment. 

 “[T]he indiscriminate use of force without regard for its effects is the hallmark of authoritarianism, incompatible with the functioning of a democracy, and certainly incompatible with the transmission of democratic values to children.”

Whitehead went on to write:

“Moreover, the harsher the penalty now, the more likely a student will in turn be harsh to the people around him, leaving schools and communities to deal with consequences in the future that could have been avoided. If the goal is to make schools safer, then extreme and unreasonable punishment could very well defeat that purpose.”
 

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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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