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Minor in possession of a loaded pastry

Sandy Hook Elementary School

If anyone was at risk in the case of the Anne Arundel County second-grader who nibbled a strawberry pastry into the shape of a gun, it wasn't his classmates eating breakfast at Park Elementary School, where authorities say he waved the confection around. No, it was 7-year-old Josh Welch himself, who ate all that fat and sugar under the guise of a school nutrition program.

Unfortunately, Park officials didn't see it that way. A school assistant principal told Josh's father, William "B.J." Welch, that his son was suspended for two days to atone for his transgression. Then the school sent a letter to all parents explaining that Josh had been "removed from the classroom" for making "inappropriate gestures that disrupted the class."

Say again? "Removed from the classroom"? That sounds like young Josh had to be dragged kicking and screaming from his chair, perhaps with crumbs still clinging to his sticky little hands. We don't believe it.

"Inappropriate gestures that disrupted the class"? Where was the mayhem that reduced Josh's classmates to cowering in fear before the mortal threat posed by a half-eaten pastry? If only we had some school surveillance video to show the havoc that erupted.

Conservative news outlets immediately pounced on the story as an example of liberal-inspired political correctness run amok. And who can disagree?

What happened to Josh, whose breakfast treat truly never posed the slightest threat to anyone, illustrates the silliness that far too often overtakes even normally responsible adults when they allow a rigid adherence to bureaucratic rules to take precedence over the exercise of good judgment. Or, we're sad to say, when they're simply too lazy to think about what they are doing.

In this case, Park school officials clearly failed the reasonableness test. And they are not alone. School officials elsewhere have overreacted to similarly harmless incidents involving young children, perhaps forgetting that at that age kids often mimic gestures and situations they see on TV or at the movies, with little real understanding of the life-and-death issues their actions imply.

Last month, an 8-year-old boy in Prince William County, Va., was suspended from school for one day for pointing his finger like a gun in a school hallway after a friend pretended to shoot him with a bow and arrow. In another recent Virginia case, a 10-year-old Alexandria student was arrested and fingerprinted after police discovered a toy gun in his backpack at school.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut last year, school officials are right to be extra vigilant on the issue of guns in schools and to follow strict policies toward weapons of any sort on school grounds. But "zero tolerance" can't be allowed to mean "zero common sense."

For better or worse, kids grow up in a society with a long-standing tradition of firearms ownership that is virtually impossible to ignore or escape. They collect toy soldiers, watch TV shows and movies in which guns are commonplace, and play shoot 'em up video games. Of course they're going to be influenced by that imagery. Adults won't get very far pretending guns don't exist or that they aren't part of our culture. But it should be possible to teach children, even very young ones, that guns aren't toys and violence isn't a joke without suspending them from school for every childish mistake.

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