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Parents react to toy gun found at school

March 13, 2011|By JULIE E. GREENE | julieg@herald-mail.com
By Chad Trovinger, Graphic Artist

Some parents of Pangborn Elementary School students are upset because they believed a student took a loaded BB gun to the school, and the school system did not notify parents and all school employees.

In December, a student was found in possession of a toy gun at Pangborn, school system spokesman Richard Wright said.

"In no way are we aware that it was a loaded gun of any sort, whether it was a BB gun or not. There was no ammunition that we're aware of," Wright said.

Wright said the school system did not notify all Pangborn employees and parents about the incident. It was not the type of situation that warranted such notification, Wright said.

"I think everybody needs to be notified if someone has a weapon in school," even if it's a toy weapon, said a parent who did not want his name used for fear of retaliation.

The school system could use its e-mail and phone notification systems to notify parents whenever a weapon was found in school, to let them know the matter was investigated and whether the weapon was real or a toy, that parent suggested.



Case-by-case basis



Whether parents and school employees are notified when a student takes a weapon or look-alike weapon to school depends on the impact of the incident at the school, Wright said, noting that notification decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Wright mentioned an incident at another school this school year in which all parents were notified because multiple students were affected. In that case, students learned of a toy gun that was in the school, said Wright, who would not identify the school.

The incident happened at the end of a school day, on a Friday, too late in the day to send a letter home with students. Because the school system wanted to get the word to parents quickly, the alert phone system was used, he said.

"Regarding policies for parent notification, there is no board policy on notifying parents about these types of school situations, however it is the school system's practice to send letters home as often as necessary when incidents at a school require direct communication," Wright wrote in an e-mail.

"In most cases, WCPS notifies all parents when a situation at their child's school presented a risk to all students," he wrote.

According to the 2010-11 Washington County Public Schools Handbook and Guide, found online at www.wcps.k12.md.us/parents_community, the principal or principal's designee is to immediately notify parents of the victim and offender in cases of bullying, harassment or intimidation.

In the Pangborn incident, there was no indication the toy gun was used to make threats, Wright wrote.



Privacy vs. information



The Herald-Mail contacted six parents of Pangborn Elementary students to ask them, in general, if they would want to be notified if a student took a weapon or look-alike weapon to their child's school. Two were willing to speak on the record.

Andrea Wilt said although the December incident happened in her daughter's classroom, a school official would tell her only that it was not a real gun and the official didn't feel students were in danger. She said she could get no further information because of privacy issues.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act does not allow the school system to disclose disciplinary records to anyone other than the student, parent or legal guardian, according to the school system's handbook.

"My concern was, 'What was the incident?' and 'How (will they) prevent it from happening again?'" Wilt said.

Wilt said the school system could have notified the parents of the students in that classroom, if not on the day of the incident, then the next day.

"Because once you have your child coming home for two days in a row with conflicting stories, you would like to know the truth," Wilt said.

The school system has notified parents when the school was locked down for incidents in the neighborhood, such as a robbery at a nearby bank, Wilt said.

Christina Marick, who also has a child at Pangborn, said she thought it would be wise for the school system to inform parents that an incident occurred, how it was handled and what the procedures are if it occurs again.

Marick said it would be OK to get that information and not learn the identity of the young offender.

"I don't think we should judge the child," said Marick, who said parents need to be reassured an incident has been handled properly and that providing more information would eliminate rumors.

The school system's handbook describes a range of disciplinary possibilities for various incidents, but Marick called the guidelines "gray." She said she would prefer to know how the school system handles specific incidents at her child's school.

According to the disciplinary guidelines in the handbook, disciplinary action for an elementary student who carries a firearm to school ranges from a minimum penalty of a five-day suspension to a maximum penalty ranging from expulsion to notifying law enforcement.

Disciplinary action for an elementary school student who takes to school "other guns" — such as a BB gun, water gun or an object that looks like a firearm — ranges from, minimally, parental contact to notifying law enforcement, to maximally, from expulsion to notifying law enforcement.

The handbook notes the guidelines do not "circumvent the authority of principals and assistant principals to administer consequences based on the severity of the infraction, the student's prior disciplinary record and the age of the student." It notes other options might be available, such as Saturday school.

Marick said she doesn't need to know when a student wears an inflammatory shirt to school, but parents of elementary-aged children should be notified about incidents involving weapons or drugs.

Notifying employees poses a challenge because of legal restrictions that protect a child's privacy, said Denise Fry, president of the Washington County Teachers Association.

"I think there's a trust factor here. As employees, we trust the system to make sure they're ... providing a safe working environment for teachers and students," Fry said.

"I think I would appreciate an acknowledgment or notification that staff needs to be more alert, that an incident occurred," Fry said.

When possible, it's best to make teachers aware of an incident involving one of their students, Fry said. If the school system will not identify the child, it would be good, in general, to notify a teacher there was an incident involving one of his or her students in the classroom so the teacher can be more watchful, Fry said.

"Not to treat the student differently, but to be aware something happened. For the protection of the other students in the classroom also," Fry said.

"Everyone in the school system needs to feel it's a safe place," she said.

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