Too Many Schools See Danger in Boys (and Their Toys)

Perhaps we should have known that keeping schools closed would lead to boys being deemed “dangerous” in their own homes. It was inevitable that “zoom school” would present a new challenge for teachers (and parents) as children would have to do their best to focus on learning with all of their toys physically within reach. And perhaps if a Barbie Doll or Superman figure appears on screen, it’s no big deal. But if a nerf gun enters the frame, young boys may quickly find themselves talking to police officers and suspended from school for five days.

Two boys in Colorado who attend different schools recently found themselves in the crosshairs of safety protocols that defy common sense. Isaiah Elliot, age 12, briefly held up his neon green “Zombie Hunter” nerf gun during one of his virtual classes. When asked to put it away, he did. But the teacher, despite acknowledging that she was fairly certain the gun was a toy, alerted school authorities who subsequently called the police. 

Isaiah Elliot, screenshot via KDVR

They did not call his parents. 

The district defended their actions in a statement explaining that all school board policies would be enforced regardless of whether “we are in-person learning or distance learning.”

“We take the safety of all our students and staff very seriously,” said the district. “Safety is always our number one priority.”

Isaiah’s mom, Danielle Elliot, isn’t buying it. “If her main concern was his safety, a two-minute phone call to me or my husband could easily have alleviated this whole situation,” she said.

While handling issues equally whether virtual or in school may make sense in some contexts, the district’s explanation falls flat because no one’s safety was at risk. And if the school means to imply that they would have summoned police officers to the school over a Zombie Hunter Nerf gun, that too is ludicrous.

Again, Isaiah’s mom gets it precisely right: 

For them to go as extreme as suspending him for five days, sending the police out, having the police threaten to press charges against him because they want to compare the virtual environment to the actual in-school environment is insane.

Maddox Blow, Screenshot via KDVR

Maddox Blow, age 11, says he didn’t realize his camera was on when his Airsoft gun appeared on camera during class.  As with Isaiah, school officials called the police and he was suspended. His parents did not receive a phone call either. Maddox’ mom, Julie Adams-Blow, is a 2nd grade teacher. She saw no value or opportunity for learning in the punishment her son received. “What is he learning from this?’ she asks. A fair question, to put it lightly. She goes on, “he made a mistake and picked up a toy gun, a phone call could have been made and that’s that. That’s scary enough.”

Isaiah is black. Maddox is white. But both are boys and there is clear evidence that schools increasingly shame and yes, criminalize the perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate interests of boys. Airsoft guns do look more real than nerf guns and certainly a phone call or email to the parents would have been appropriate—it’s easy to understand why a teacher does not want an airsoft gun visible during a virtual class. But one kid’s airsoft gun at home is another boy’s fishing rod or iguana or baseball bat. I saw my own 6th grade son tossing a football in the air the other day during online school. Are we going to get to the point where that too triggers hysteria because of the common claim that football is violent?

I’m trying to think back to my own childhood for something I could have shown on screen—well, if we had screens back then— to get me suspended. Nothing comes to mind. Ribbon barrettes, friendship bracelets, Cabbage Patch Kids, Hello Kitty, leg warmers, my 45 vinyl record of Eye of the Tiger? Perhaps a pair of tweezers, a basketball, or a poster of Kirk Cameron? 

The truth is that our culture of hysteria has allowed us to get to a place where a 12-year-old boy with a neon green nerf gun is seen by some as a threat that warrants a home visit from the police without a call home first. It is unacceptable. Isaiah and Maddox and so many other boys find themselves caught in the crosshairs of an increasingly anti-boy bias in America’s schools that now encroaches into their homes when school buildings are closed.

Boys are already reprimanded more quickly and punished more often when they are in school and suspended and expelled at more than four times the rate of girls from early childhood through grade 12. And Black boys have it worst—research shows that they are more likely to be seen as troublemakers and their misbehavior more severe than their white counterparts for exactly the same behavior. 

We often hear about the school-to-prison pipeline as it relates to school discipline. Sending police officers to the homes of 11 and 12-year-old boys without even a phone call home to parents feels like a real life example. Among males 17 or younger, the boy-to-girl ratio in correctional institutions is 9:1. Among 18-21 year olds, the ratio grows to 14:1. That trajectory often starts in school.

We are failing our boys.

Below is the interview Citizen Ed’s Tracey Wiley did with Isaiah Elliot’s mom, Danielle.


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