Three boys learned the hard way that Millard Public Schools officials are serious about keeping guns away from schools, even toy guns.
The middle school students were expelled for a year after playing with airsoft BB guns outside an elementary school on Oct. 1.
The mother of one boy said Friday that the boys have suffered enough, learned their lesson and should be allowed to rejoin their classmates.
She said the boys are victims of a zero-tolerance discipline policy that leaves no room for administrators to exercise discretion.
The case is stirring debate over zero-tolerance policies, which impose swift and severe automatic punishment. Such policies gained momentum in the 1990s in response to school shootings, and at times they have led to extreme results.
In 2005, officials at one Omaha elementary school suspended a 6-year-old student for one day after a butter knife fell from his backpack. The boy said he didn't know it was there.
A few years earlier, two Omaha Public Schools students were expelled for coming to school with plastic-covered safety scissors.
On Thursday, parents of the Millard boys appealed their sons' one-year expulsions to a panel of three school board members: Mike Kennedy, Linda Poole and Paul Meyer. The panel, which considered the appeal in closed session, has five days to review the evidence and decide whether Brandon Eastlack and two friends who were expelled from Kiewit Middle School deserved the punishment.
Kennedy and Meyer both said Friday that they cannot comment on the specifics of a disciplinary matter. Board President Mike Pate also said he would not comment until a decision has been reached and made public.
The Millard district requires a mandatory one-year expulsion for any student “using, intimidating with, threatening with, possessing on one's person, handling or transmitting any paint ball gun, airsoft gun, BB gun, or pellet gun” on school grounds.
The names of students involved in disciplinary cases are kept confidential as a matter of policy, but Brandon’s mother, Barb Eastlack, agreed to talk about her son’s case.
Eastlack said a year away from school in her son’s case is “too extreme.”
Eastlack said she understands the heightened concern about guns after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre last year in Newton, Conn., and the 2011 fatal shooting at Millard South High.
She said, however, that the boys had no intent to hurt anyone. The plastic BBs fired from her son's airsoft Undead Apocalypse rifle lacked the velocity to penetrate a paper plate or a pancake — she tested it, she said.
“Tearing these kids' lives apart is not going to make those kids at Kiewit safer,” she said.
The owner's manual for Brandon's gun says it fires quarter-inch plastic BBs up to 200 feet per second. The user should wear eye protection, it says. The manual also warns that brandishing the gun in public “may confuse people,” and “police and others may think it's a firearm.”
Leery of airsoft guns, many school districts have added them to their weapons policies. Among school officials' fears is that despite their orange-colored muzzles, the toys could cause panic on school campuses where teachers are already on edge over real school shootings. The nightmare scenario would be police officers shooting a child who is mistaken for an armed intruder.
On Tuesday, police in Santa Rose, Calif., shot and killed a 13-year-old boy carrying a BB gun designed to look like an assault rifle.
A spot check of other Omaha metro-area school districts showed no tolerance for weapons possession but flexibility in disciplining students.
Omaha school district policy allows expulsion and long-term suspension for possession of BB, airsoft and paint ball guns, however, administrators have discretion to impose less severe punishment.
In the Elkhorn Public Schools, the policy calls for a one-year expulsion of students possessing a look-alike weapon on school grounds, but the superintendent may modify the expulsion “on an individual basis.”
The Papillion-La Vista district prohibits toys guns and look-alikes, allowing suspension and expulsion but also some discretion, depending on the situation.
“It's different if a second- grader brings a toy gun in their backpack that was left there from a sleepover or if a student brings it to school and threatens somebody,” said Annette Eyman, spokeswoman for the Papillion-La Vista district.
Eastlack said Brandon got the toy gun for his birthday. Three days later, he and his friends were shooting in the backyard. They decided to move their game to the open grounds of Grace Abbott Elementary School about a block from the Eastlacks' home in the Pepperwood subdivision. It was after school hours, she said.
Someone called police saying the boys had either BB or airsoft guns, she said. The guns were green, tan and clear, she said.
Police officers stopped the boys and advised them of the danger of police mistaking their guns for the real thing, she said.
The police released the boys to their parents and did not ticket them, she said.
School officials learned of the incident and recommended expulsion, she said.
Eastlack said Brandon is a good kid who has never been in trouble. Since cleaning out his locker at Kiewit, he has been attending Millard's alternative school program, located in a strip mall, she said. The school work is mostly independent study on computers, she said.
Eastlack said Brandon is an athlete, and expulsion would cut into his wrestling, track and summer freshman football conditioning.
She said Millard officials have not applied their policy consistently. After her son was expelled, she said, she learned that earlier this year Millard's Montclair Elementary held a carnival where kids played laser tag with toy guns.
She said the boys should be in school with their friends and teachers. But she also wants to make sure no other families have to go through something similar.
“I would like the policy to be changed to one of reason,” she said.