You have to be careful what you say nowadays. A playful word here and there can turn into something much different when taken out of context and in the wrong setting.
My kids always seem to be listening. Even when they can’t hear a word of instruction I give, somehow they can repeat every single thing I said later when they choose to. While that has burned me a few times in a social setting where a private conversation suddenly became public around friends and family — thanks to my 5-year-old, who often resembles a tape recorder — it’s more than my embarrassment I’m worried about here.
In my younger days, I used to joke around with friends using phrases like, “Don’t make me shoot you.” It was a funny way to tell someone they better stop their jesting or I’ll make them regret it. It wasn’t serious, nor was I, and I had no intention of pulling an actual trigger on a friend jabbing me with some witty banter. But you can’t talk like that anymore, especially around kids. They’ll take that stuff to school, to their friends, and it’ll turn into something completely different than it was originally intended to be.
A harmless phrase between friends can turn into a serious threat in a different setting. Can you imagine if my daughter started joking around with her friends the same way at school? Questions would be raised, for sure, and I’d be backpedaling after a phone call from her teacher. But she’s 5. What if she was 12? Would the reaction be the same? What if she said, “Don’t make me blow you up,” instead?
There’s no longer any messing around at school. Words are immediate cause for concern, and considered weapons. Sure, there’s the bullying aspect of them, which has been taken to a whole new level and would require this whole column to analyze, but I’m simply referring to words seen as threats to the safety of students, and the reaction that will undoubtedly bring after all of the incidents that have taken place across the country in the last few years.
When real threats like that exist, the harmless ones can’t be ignored. As frustrating as it is to have to censor ourselves for the sake of political correctness nowadays, there’s some risks that just cannot be taken, at least according to those making the rules nowadays.
Because of this, schools have taken a zero tolerance approach to such instances to nip in the bud. For example:
• A 16-year-old high school student in upstate New York was suspended for wearing an NRA T-shirt that touted, “2nd Amendment Shall not be Infringed.” He was suspended after he refused to turn it inside out or cover the words with duct tape.
• An 11-year-old boy was suspended in Calvert County, Md. for talking about guns on the bus ride home. He was talking with friends about the Sandy Hook shooting. “He said, I wish I had a gun to protect everyone. He wanted to defeat the bad guys,” his father Bruce Henkelman said. “He wanted to be the hero.”
And if it’s not words, it’s gestures, no matter how far fetched:
• A 10-year-old, Nathan Entingh, was suspended after pointing his fingers in the form of a gun at his friends in his fifth-grade science class.
Times have changed. We used to play G.I. Joe on the playground. Some of us were Cobra Vipers, and battles ensued with all sorts of imaginary weapons.
We made homemade swords out of cardboard and duked it out like Knights of the Round Table, too.
Would we be suspended, or even expelled, today just for being kids? Maybe. But for good reason? I’m not so sure.
It’s a safety issue, and it makes sense. For every 50 harmless incidents like the ones listed above, there’s a kid actually caught with a loaded gun in his locker, or blades that could easily harm or kill classmates.
Is it worth the risk to keep the integrity of kids’ imaginations alive? That’s a really good question. But those of us with kids roaming the halls today would like to believe the answer for anyone would be no, and that as we navigate through this society with a new generation of issues that arise, we have to tread lightly to ensure the safety of those for whom we are responsible.
The question then becomes, what are we willing to sacrifice to do so?
Patrick Ibarra is the managing editor of the Mountain Democrat.