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Schools queried on strict penalties for students

Parents contend officials overreact

NEW YORK — Waiting in line for the bus, a Pennsylvania kindergartner tells her pals she is going to shoot them with a Hello Kitty toy that makes soap bubbles. In Massachusetts, a 5-year-old boy attending an after-school program makes a gun out of Legos and points it at other students.

Are they children with active imaginations or potential threats to school safety?

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Some school officials are taking the latter view, suspending or threatening to suspend young children over such pranks. But many parents consider the behavior normal and age-appropriate, even now that schools are in a state of heightened sensitivity after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in December.

The extent to which the Newtown, Conn., shooting might influence educators’ disciplinary decisions is unclear. But parents contend administrators are projecting adult fears onto children who know little about the massacre and who pose no threat to anyone.

‘‘It’s horrible what they’re doing to these kids,’’ said Kelly Guarna, whose 5-year-old daughter, Madison, was suspended by Mount Carmel Area School District in Pennsylvania last month for making a ‘‘terroristic threat’’ with the bubble gun. ‘‘They’re treating them as mini-adults, making them grow up too fast, and robbing them of their imaginations.’’

Mary Czajkowski, superintendent of Barnstable Public Schools in Hyannis, acknowledged that Sandy Hook has teachers and parents on edge. But she defended Hyannis West Elementary School’s warning to a boy, 5, who chased classmates with a gun he’d made from plastic building blocks, saying he didn’t listen to the teacher when she told him to stop.

The school told his mother if it happened again, he would face a two-week suspension.

‘‘Given the heightened awareness and sensitivity, we must do all that we can to ensure that all students and adults both remain safe and feel safe in schools,’’ Czajkowski said in a statement.

The boy’s mother, Sheila Cruz-Cardosa, said school officials are responding irrationally following Sandy Hook. She said they should be concentrating on ‘‘high school kids or kids who are more of a threat, not an innocent 5-year-old who’s playing with Legos.’’

Though Newtown introduces a wrinkle to the debate, the slew of recent suspensions over perceived threats or weapons infractions has renewed old questions about the wisdom of ‘‘zero tolerance’’ policies.

Conceived as a way to improve security and maintain discipline and order, zero tolerance was enshrined by a 1994 federal law that required states to mandate a minimum one-year expulsion of a student caught with a firearm on school property. Over the years, many states and school districts expanded zero tolerance to include offenses as varied as fighting or skipping school.

Some specialists say there is little evidence zero tolerance makes schools safer and contend it leads to increased rates of dropouts. Supporters respond that zero tolerance is a useful and necessary tool for removing disruptive children.

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