'Pop-Tart' school-gun bill clears first hurdle

8:10 AM, Feb 7, 2014   |    comments
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida lawmakers are working to keep students from getting in serious trouble for "simulating a weapon" with harmless objects like their fingers, Pop-Tarts or Legos.

State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the proposed bill is designed to bar "overreactions" under zero-tolerance policies designed to keep weapons out of public schools.

The bill cleared by a state House panel on Wednesday would bar school districts from suspending students for "brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item" bitten into the shape of a weapon or "possessing a toy firearm or weapon made of plastic snap-together building blocks."

Baxley dubbed the measure the "Pop-Tart bill," a monicker that refers to a case in Maryland involving a student who chewed a toaster pastry into the shape of a pistol, inspiring similar legislation in that state.

Florida and other states adopted zero-tolerance laws in the wake of high-profile school shootings. In recent years, however, school districts like Leon County have encouraged administrators to find alternatives to suspension or expulsion, and lawmakers have tried to give educators more flexibility under laws they say may have gone too far.

The proposed bill received unanimous support on the House K-12 Subcommittee, which counts several educators among its members, including Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland.

It would prevent students from facing disciplinary action for wearing clothes that depict guns or "express an opinion regarding a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment." It would allow administrators to take action if a toy disrupts learning or poses a legitimate threat.

"This is addressing a zero-tolerance policy that often will not allow people to use common sense because their hands are tied," said Castor Dentel, who has taught at several Central-Florida elementary schools.

Florida's current law requires school districts to create zero-tolerance polices for actions that pose "a serious threat to school safety." Leon County Schools' code of conduct lists 10 offenses, ranging from sexual battery to weapon possession, that can cause administrators to expel students and refer them to police.

But the current law also says zero-tolerance policies are "not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts."

Kathleen Rodgers, a Leon County Schools official who reviews expulsion cases, said that means administrators have the ability to make judgment calls. For example, a Boy Scout who accidentally brings a pocket knife to school should not be automatically suspended, she said. On the other hand, school supplies like scissors, razors or pencil sharpeners can be used as weapons.

"We train our principals and assistant principals to look at those issues on a case-by-basis," Rodgers said.

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