TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Legislators here are working to keep students from getting in serious trouble for simulating a weapon with harmless objects like their fingers, Pop-Tarts or Legos.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, a Republican from Ocala, Fla., said his bill is designed to bar overreactions under zero-tolerance policies designed to keep weapons out of public schools.
The bill cleared a state House panel Wednesday and 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 moniker that refers to a Maryland student who chewed a toaster pastry into the shape of a pistol and was suspended, inspiring similar legislation in that state that has not become law. The boy later received a lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association as Republicans in the area rallied around his cause.
A GOP legislator in at least one other state, Oklahoma, also has taken up the gauntlet.
Florida and other states adopted zero-tolerance laws in wake of high-profile school shootings. However, in recent years some school districts have encouraged administrators to find alternatives to suspension or expulsion, and lawmakers have tried to give educators more flexibility on 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, a Democrat from the Orlando suburb of 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 law now requires school districts to create zero-tolerance polices for actions that pose "a serious threat to school safety." As one example, 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 supposed to be applied to petty acts.
Administrators have the ability to make judgment calls, said Kathleen Rodgers, a Leon County Schools official who reviews expulsion cases.
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-case basis," Rodgers said.