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Panel Passes 'Common Sense' Tweak To School Gun Policies

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) - A bill backed by the National Rifle Association that lawmakers said would add "common sense" to zero-tolerance policies for guns in public schools sailed through a House education panel on Wednesday.

The measure (PCB KTS 14-02) by House Judiciary Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, would prevent children from being disciplined for simulating a gun while playing or wearing clothes that depict firearms.

Baxley called the measure "the pop-tart bill" --- a reference to a widely reported news story about a Maryland 7-year-old who was suspended from school last year for chewing his breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun.

"Obviously we don't want firearms brought to school in a backpack," Baxley said. "But we were definitely having some over-reactions."

According to national news reports, incidents have included punishing students for drawing a picture of a gun, using a finger as an imaginary gun while making the sound of a gun, owning a miniature gun on a keychain, owning a gun made of Legos and wearing a National Rifle Association T-shirt to school.

In Florida, Fox News reported, an 8-year-old boy was suspended from Harmony Community School in the Central Florida community of Harmony after using his finger as a gun while playing cops and robbers with friends. Jordan Bennett was suspended for a day after school administrators said the gesture was an act of violence.

The stories didn't sound far-fetched to members of the House K-12 Subcommittee, who added their own.

Rep. Carl Zimmermann, a Palm Harbor Democrat and high-school journalism teacher, recalled a student who --- weeks before her graduation --- was found to have a pink water pistol in the back seat of her car and "wasn't allowed to walk to graduation" as a result.

Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, a Maitland Democrat and a public-school teacher, said the zero-tolerance policies often prevent administrators from using their common sense "because their hands are tied. I support the bill so that people will be able to have that flexibility."

Florida law requires district school boards to adopt policies of zero tolerance for crime and victimization, requiring, among other things, that students found in possession of firearms or weapons at school, at school functions or on school transportation be expelled for a minimum of one year and referred to the criminal-justice or juvenile-justice system.

Critics have called the zero-tolerance policy the "school-to-prison pipeline" for criminalizing childish or adolescent behavior. The American Civil Liberties Union called the policy "a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal-justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect. …Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline."

Rep. Ronald Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach, said the bill would give guidance to school boards and school officials that they should "take a step back, take a breath and realize that decisions they're making are really affecting our students."

Rep. Gwyn Clarke-Reed, a Deerfield Beach Democrat and a retired educator, asked Baxley whether the problems he was trying to address could have been handled internally within the school districts.

"I suppose there's always a way things can be handled," Baxley replied. "But this is the way a legislator can handle it."

The K-12 Subcommittee passed the measure 13-0.

After the vote, NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said the bill isn't about guns.

"This bill is about children, and stopping children from being traumatized when adults lack good common sense or the capacity to make rational judgments," she said. "Zero tolerance should not mean zero common sense. Unfortunately, it seems to."

The Oklahoma Legislature is considering a similar measure, called the Common Sense Zero Tolerance Act.

"The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report."

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