Sunday, July 9, 2017

This Isn't a Weapon, Either.

Not writing anything here for the first several months of the year have left Curmie with a backlog of stories to discuss. Today’s entry consists of a trio of incidents involving guns that aren’t guns, and threats that aren’t threats, in educational settings. This is an all-too-familiar and frankly rather depressing trope that Curmie’s been writing about for years. 2013 was especially fruitful in this regard. Over the course of that year, Curmie wrote about students’ getting into trouble, often charged with crazy shit like “terroristic threats” for the following. Age or grade level of the hardened criminals involved in parentheses:

  • Finger-shooting another student (age 6)
  • Possessing a single sheet of paper with a quarter of it ripped off, leaving the remainder in an extremely rough approximation of the shape of a handgun (5th grade)
  • Suggesting to a friend, while not on school property, that they “shoot” each other with their Hello Kitty bubble guns (kindergarten)
  • Making a “gun” out of Legos in an after-school program (age 5)
  • Throwing an imaginary grenade into an equally imaginary box containing “evil” (2nd grade)
  • Waving around a Pop-tart bitten into roughly the shape of a pistol (age 7)
  • Bringing a drawing of a cartoonish-looking bomb to school (age 13, autistic)
  • Carrying a pistol-shaped keychain, possibly 2” in size (age 12)
  • Drawing pictures of possible Hallowe’en costumes (age 8)
  • Disarming (!) a classmate who had a loaded handgun and was threatening another student (age 16)
  • Intervening between a bully with a switchblade and his intended victim (age 13)
Posts are here, here, and here. Note that these stories are all from a single year, and just the ones that Curmie wrote about.

So I suppose it’s good news that so far this year Curmie has encountered only three stories of this kind, and at least one of them is partially understandable. Or it could be that I’ve just missed the press coverage of those events… or, worse, this kind of inanity has become so commonplace that it’s deemed unworthy of reporting. But here we are.

Caitlin Miller: probably not really a terrorist.
We begin, then, in late March in Hoke County, North Carolina, where idiotic school officials (Curmie wonders if this phrasing is redundant) suspended a five-year-old girl for playing with a stick she pretended was a gun. Yes, Gentle Reader, you read that correctly. Caitlin Miller was playing “king and queen” with two of her friends; her task was to guard the royal couple. So she found a stick that vaguely resembles a gun, and used it to dissuade intruders. It is reported that she may have even pointed it in the general direction of another child. OMG! Terrorist attack! Call out the SWAT team, the National Guard, and the Navy Seals! There’s a five-year-old with a stick at large!

Seriously, the stupidity of the adults in this case transcends credulity. 1. There are three audiences for this event: a). the three girls involved in the game, all of whom know it’s a game, b). other children, who see a stick and think it’s a stick, and c). moronic, paranoid, unimaginative adults who should never be allowed on school property without a ticket to the concert or the basketball game. 2). The policy invoked by the mental midgets at the school prohibits “assaults, threats or harassment.” It apparently didn’t occur to them that the fact that Caitlin did none of these things makes her suspension outrageous. 3). Caitlin’s mother, in saying she understands the rationale for the rule—and presumably its kneejerk application to completely innocent play by kindergarteners—shows more tact than Curmie would. There is literally no excuse for the school’s actions. The teacher who reported the incident, the principal, the superintendent, and whatever drone found it possible to craft the district’s response: every one of these people should be summarily fired: after they spend a day apiece (the length of Caitlin’s suspension) in the stocks, to be pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables.

Zachary Bowlin: liked the wrong Instagram post.
And so we move on to Trenton, OH, where Edgewood Middle School 7th-grader Zachary Bowlin was suspended for ten days (the suspension was dropped after school officials belatedly figured out what a public relations nightmare their idiocy had precipitated talked to Zachary’s parents) for liking a friend’s Instagram post. Yes, really. Not posting, not commenting: liking. You see, what Zachary had “liked” was a photo of an airsoft gun (admittedly, it would take someone more knowledgeable than Curmie to have known the “airsoft” part at a glance), with the caption, “Ready.” There are a thousand explanations for why Zachary would “like” such a post, exactly one of which could be interpreted as a threat. An abundance of caution would lead to an investigation; the school, naturally, jumped straight to panic and suspension. There are unconfirmed reports that Chicken Little advised school officials to chill the fuck out.

To be fair, there does seem to have been something going on, although Zachary appears to have been totally innocent: a couple of days after the suspension-that-wasn’t, criminal charges were filed against two students at the school when one posted a photo of a gun and another (presumably not Zachary) liked the post and then texted a friend, saying he was going to bring a gun to school in his hoodie. Curmie remains unconvinced that discussing a potential action ought to be criminalized at all, much less categorized as a felony, but at least there’s cause for suspicion in that circumstance.

Certainly what Zachary did does not rise to the level of “violent, disruptive, harassing, intimidating, bullying, or any other inappropriate behavior” cited by Superintendent Russ Fussnecker (could Dickens have thought up a better name for this dweeb?) as part of the district’s (wait for it…) no tolerance policy towards any kind of student behavior the administration doesn’t endorse. (By the way, it took Curmie, who considers himself a reasonably adept researcher, nearly an hour to find the Student Code of Conduct online: it’s buried in the middle of this document on the Board of Education’s website. That in itself is telling.) But here’s the really outrageous part: the district claims that “Students are also subject to discipline, as outlined in the Student Code of Conduct for misbehavior that occurs off school property when the misbehavior endangers the health and safety of students within the District, or adversely affects the education process.” Uh, no. The Board can claim that right all they want, but it doesn’t exist. Schools don’t have the right to be voyeuristic assholes. They are permitted, however, to employ appropriate punctuation in their official documents; they have clearly decided not to exercise that particular right.

Finally for today, there’s an incident that actually preceded the one in Ohio, but Curmie lists it last because it’s unlike the other two stories in a couple of significant ways. First off, it occurred on a university campus. Secondly, this was case in which the initial problem was apparently the result of an honest mistake rather than abject stupidity.

One of the better snarky responses to
the incident at Colgate.
Here’s what happened: on the night of May 1, someone notified Colgate University police that a shirtless man was seen entering the O'Connor Campus Center while carrying what witnesses believed was a weapon. The UPD called it in to 911, there was predictable panic, and the campus was on lockdown for several hours before authorities ascertained that the alleged culprit was in fact carrying a glue gun for an art project.

At one level, there’s little of interest here: someone over-reacted to a perceived threat, but at least there was someone with what could legitimately have looked like a handgun heading into a campus building. It would have been approaching sunset, and it was apparently pouring rain. Visibility wouldn’t have been great. From a distance of even a few yards, in those conditions, a glue gun could look like a gun gun. Whoever called the UPD (we’re told only that it was a student) apparently made it clear that what turned out to be a glue gun appeared to possibly be a weapon. At 7:05 the university sent out an alert, describing a “dangerous situation in the Coop,” advising everyone to leave the building. So far, so good—appropriate caution and all that. [Note: several sources say the university’s response started shortly after 8:00, but the timestamps say 7:05 and 7:20. You may color Curmie confused.]

Trouble is that 15 minutes later, the possibility of a threat had metastasized into “an armed person.” It was like a game of “telephone” gone horribly awry. Inevitably, there were reports of an “active shooter.”

Of course, the incident carries with it two other topics for conversation. First, Glue Gun Guy turns out to be black, and there were accusations of racial profiling and bias coming not only from the predictable sources (a handful of black students who must endure being educated at one of the country’s most prestigious universities), but also—prior to any investigation—by the university president, Brian W. Casey, who invoked jargon-laden terms like “implicit racial bias” and “profiling.” What’s important here is that the UPD response started before the alleged gunman ever identified by race. Still, Campus Safety Director Bill Ferguson was placed on administrative leave because… well… because. Of course, had Glue Gun Guy actually been an active shooter, Ferguson would have been derelict had he not taken precisely the actions he did (minus the one or two misleading messages).

There’s an excellent discussion by Zach Winn on the Campus Safety magazine site. He writes:
Members of the campus community should never hesitate to call their public safety departments, even for something they might feel is minor or may reflect poorly on them.

Universities should be trying to foster an environment where students don’t think twice about contacting law enforcement. If even one report isn’t made because a student is concerned about backlash, then that campus has become less safe.

In short, President Casey is questioning students for something he should be celebrating them for.

Additionally, placing Chief Ferguson on leave, which many will interpret as a punishment regardless of Casey’s reasoning, sends a message that operating with an abundance of caution is the wrong way to react….

This isn’t to say President Casey is at fault for reviewing the incident, but to place Chief Ferguson on leave and talk about the problem of racial bias before the review has even started seems like the wrong order of business. [Emphasis in original.]
Indeed, the official report, issued on May 12, blames the miscommunication on “user error”: a mistake, in other words. The review also states, plainly, that “there is no appropriate way within the timeframe and scope of this investigation to fully, or even preliminarily, assess the role that bias might have played in the initial report to Campus Safety of perceptions of an armed person entering the Coop,” but nonetheless concludes that he university should “provide training to Colgate employees on working with and serving a diverse community, and recognizing and avoiding racial bias.” Just what a cynic would expect, in other words: there’s no evidence of an actual problem, but we should invest a lot of resources towards solving it, anyway.

To be sure, racial profiling may have played a role, either in the initial report or in the UPD’s handling of the case. One white Colgate student, Jenny Lundt, took it upon herself to demonstrate this point in a Facebook post that went viral to the tune of more than 26,000 likes and 17,000 shares. Ms. Lundt links her “white privilege” to the fact that she had a sword in her dorm room and occasionally trotted it out at parties and the like. Her screed begins:
THIS is what white privilege looks like. This is me, only one year ago on this very campus, running around the academic quad with a fucking sharp metal sword. People thought it was funny. People laughed- oh look at that harmless, ~ silly white girl ~ with a giant sword!!

Today, a black man carrying a fucking glue gun shut down my ~prestigious liberal arts college~ for 4 hours. The limited information that was released put all black men on this campus in danger and at risk of being killed. That is the reality of the institutionalized racism in the United States. If you think for even a second this wasn't profiling, ask yourself why this sword is still in my room and has not ONCE made anyone uncomfortable. No one has EVER called the police on me.
Yeah, well, maybe. But there’s a difference between a gun and a sword, as demonstrated by the recent London Bridge attacks—how much worse would the carnage have been had the attackers had firearms? Ms. Lundt has general point about racism. Whether the general is supported by this specific example is not absolutely clear. But Ms. Lundt does stand in peril of losing her progressive credentials if she doesn’t stop saying a sword is as lethal as a handgun.

The Colgate incident may or may not shine a light on institutionalized racism. It definitely serves as a cry in the wilderness for precision in language and the need to check sources before spreading alarms. We’re all guilty of these latter crimes from time to time; here’s a plea that we all work on this. We may not solve the world’s problems, but we can do what we can to stop contributing to them.

One thing these stories have in common is institutional over-reaction, a phenomenon which comes in many forms. Another similarity is the fact that significant decisions were made prior to determining the facts.  Finally, they share the fact that Curmie wrote more about them than he intended to... he'll stop now.

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