Martin Di Caro
OWINGS, MD -- The father of a middle schooler in Calvert County, Md. says his 11-year-old son was suspended for 10 days for merely talking about guns on the bus ride home.
Bruce Henkelman of Huntingtown says his son, a sixth grader at Northern Middle School in Owings, was talking with friends about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre when the bus driver hauled him back to school to be questioned by the principal, Darrel Prioleau.
"The principal told me that with what happened at Sandy Hook if you say the word 'gun' in my school you are going to get suspended for 10 days," Henkelman said in an interview with WMAL.com.
So what did the boy say? According to his father, he neither threatened nor bullied anyone.
"He said, I wish I had a gun to protect everyone. He wanted to defeat the bad guys. That's the context of what he said," Henkelman said. "He wanted to be the hero."
The boy was questioned by the principal and a sheriff's deputy, who also wanted to search the family home without a warrant, Henkelman said. "He started asking me questions about if I have firearms, and [the deputy said] he's going to have to search my house. Search my house? I just wanted to know what happened."
No search was performed, and the deputy left Henkelman's home after the father answered questions in a four-page questionnaire issued by the Sheriff's Office.
Principal Darrel Prioleau did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment. Robin Welsh, the deputy superintendent of Calvert County Schools, said federal privacy rules prohibited her from commenting on a specific case, but she said students are not suspended without cause.
"There has to be some violation within the code of conduct that would trigger some type of consequence or intervention," said Welsh, who said the county school system does not have a zero tolerance policy.
Based on information about Henkelman's case provided by WMAL.com, the ACLU of Maryland said the suspension, later reduced to one day, was a poor choice by school administrators.
"It's appropriate for school officials to investigate when there is a concern about student safety. But based on what's been described to us, once the school official concluded that all the young man wanted to do was to be safe at school and that he posed no risk to anyone, the suspension was really inappropriate," said Sonya Kumar, an ACLU staff attorney.
"The school should have been assuring him that they were going to take steps to keep all students safe, not punishing him," she added.
Henkelman said the incident happened last December right before students were sent home for winter break, but he did not feel compelled to take his story to the public until he learned that a 5-year-old Calvert County boy was suspended for bringing a toy cap gun on a school bus.
"[My son] was very scared at the fact that he was interviewed by the principal and a sheriff's deputy alone. He didn't know where I was," Henkelman said.
The ACLU's Kumar said there are too many cases of school officials coming down hard on students for relatively harmless offenses.
"Across the board, we are concerned about practices where we have these sort of knee-jerk reactions without really stopping to think and use our common sense about whether what a kid is doing or saying actually presents any sort of concern for the safety and well-being of others," Kumar said.
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