DATELINE Harmony, Florida
In days gone by, the worst that teachers and school administrators had to worry about was chewing gum, running in the halls, and the occasional skirt that brushed the knee.
Now, however, educators face an arsenal arrayed against them and against the safety and discipline of our nation's schools. Students brandish pistols, rifles, grenades, swords (both steel and plasma), gigantic fighting robots, and occasionally dinosaurs.
Now, to be perfectly accurate, some of these weapons are imaginary. For instance, the Harmony Community School recently suspended eight-year-old Jordan Bennett for making an imaginary gun with his finger while playing with friends at recess. But educators maintain that good order requires zero tolerance of any reference to violence, real or imagined.
Osceolla County School District spokesperson Dol Umbridge bristled at the suggestion that suspending an eight-year-old for imaginative play was excessive. "A gun is a gun, whether you choose to brand it as 'real' or not," said Umbridge. "Imagining violence leads to violence. Past permissiveness about 'games' of 'cops and robbers' are exactly why crime is at an all-time high. And children who imagine guns will go on to imagine other things, which is highly detrimental to our curriculum. Moreover, thanks to budget cuts, many of our professional educators have been deprived of the in-service training days that would permit them to distinguish between 'real' and 'imaginary' guns."
Umbridge added that the district's policy against imaginary items is based on a successful initiative launched by the federal government in 2001.
"The point is," Umbridge explained, "that there have been school shootings in this country. Those school shootings demonstrate that parents should accept the risk assessments of teachers and school administrators, and give them the benefit of the doubt that they only want what is best for our children." Umbridge's defensive comment may have been a reference to a somewhat controversial incident at an Osceolla County school last October when a Vice Principal staked a third-grader pretending to be a vampire at an Autumn Festival. Vampires are on Osceolla County's list of prohibited subjects of imaginative play because of their association with violence, sexuality, and dysfunctional relationships.
Though the no-imaginative-play policy has met some opposition, it also enjoys support. "I can't teach my kid the difference between fantasy and reality. That's what schools are for," said one Orlando father who had recently blamed the popular computer game "Minecraft" for his nine-year-old son bringing a steak knife, bullets, and an inoperative but real handgun to elementary school. "I look to the government to flush this sort of nonsense out of his head. What am I supposed to do about it?"
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