Good news — the superintendent of the North Brookfield School District in Massachusetts has announced that students are again free to carry their own writing implements, ending a short-lived ban on that practice. He said the ban on this dangerous contraband had been imposed by two teachers and was not official policy.
On November 11, two sixth-grade teachers sent a letter home to all parents stating that because of recent "safety issues involving pens and mechanical pencils," they had decided to ban all such items from their classrooms. Students had been told to take all writing implements home and that they would no longer be permitted to "have any writing utensils on the school bus, in backpacks, on their person, or in their desks." Of course, students could not be completely deprived of writing implements – that would be stupid – and so each would be issued one (1) yellow No. 2 pencil at school for use during that day.
The letter did not say what "safety issues" had arisen, just that under the new rule "a number of behavior issues will be avoided," and that failure to follow it could lead to discipline. "If a student is found in possession of these items," they wrote, "it will be assumed that the intent is to build weapons or that the items were stolen from the classroom community baskets and the offending student will be sent to the principal's office." (Emphasis added.)
A few days later, that school's principal sent parents a second letter, saying that while students had been encouraged to use "community" school supplies to ensure "equal access," this had had nothing to do with "weapons." The principal said that there had been one disciplinary issue involving a writing implement and that the teachers had confused this with the school-supplies decision. The letter assured parents that their children would not be charged with unlawful possession of writing implements if they brought their own pencils to school.
Like the first, this letter failed to clarify what "discipline issue" had caused such a hootenanny in the first place. It said that "learning time" had been lost due to misplaced school supplies, and that "[i]n addition, we had students misusing mechanical pencils and again lost time for teaching and learning." The superintendent provided another fact by noting that "[t]he student who was found with an altered pen was suspended . . . ." What diabolical instrument had this pen been altered to create?
"The student showed me how it worked," said the local police chief, who said he had been approached by the student's parents after the boy was suspended for having the "altered pen." Based on his testing, the chief did not think the device posed any great threat. "I'd be surprised if the spitball traveled 4 feet," he said. "And at that, I'm not even sure it had any spit on it."
In these post-9/11 days, though, you can't be too careful. No, actually, yes you can. Searching underpants is being too careful, and so is suspending a sixth-grader for possession of a spitwad-shooting device. The superintendent suggested darkly that the police chief might have had a different opinion if he knew more about the "incident," but he did not elaborate, so I guess we'll never know.
For his part, the chief pointed out that even a teacher-approved No. 2 pencil could be used to injure someone, for example by poking someone in the eye, but that did not make it a "weapon" under state law. And I thought that kind of common sense had been banned.