New Ken first-grader suspended for having toy gun; expulsion possible |

New Ken first-grader suspended for having toy gun; expulsion possible

Emily Balser
Jason Bridge | Valley News Dispatch
Darin Simak, 7, of New Kensington on Thursday, June 5, 2014, displays a toy gun similar to the one he mistakenly had in his backpack at Martin Elementary School on June 4. He was suspended and faces a disciplinary hearing before Superintendent John Pallone on Friday.

The father of a first-grade student says his son accidentally brought a toy gun Wednesday to Martin Elementary School in New Kensington and turned himself in to his teacher when he realized the mistake.

School officials immediately suspended Darin Simak, 7. The child faces a disciplinary hearing Friday and the penalty could be as severe as expulsion, as per New Kensington-Arnold school policy.

Chris Simak said his 7-year-old son, Darin Simak, accidentally took the toy gun to school on June 4 because he was carrying a backpack he doesn’t normally use.

“He found the toy gun on the outside pocket,” Simak said. “He took it straight to the teacher and said that he wasn’t allowed to have it.”

Simak said the teacher had to follow protocol and tell the principal. After the incident, Simak was notified that his son was suspended pending an informal hearing with the superintendent to review the incident and decide his punishment. Simak picked his son up early from school Wednesday.

Simak sent his son to school on Thursday and he was put in in-school suspension in the school office. After learning of that, Simak picked him up early again.

“I’m just going to send him to Kennywood so he can have a nice day and so he doesn’t feel like he’s punished,” he said Thursday.

Simak believes the fact that his son turned the toy gun in himself was the right thing to do.

He says the punishment he has received so far is unfair.

“He did the right thing, and we’re trying to teach him the right way,” Simak said, “and now they’re teaching him the wrong way.”

According to Simak, the informal hearing with the superintendent is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday.

Officials remain mum

John Pallone, superintendent for the New Kensington-Arnold School District, would not confirm or deny the incident. Pallone said the school district is not allowed to discuss student matters with the media because they are to remain private.

He would not discuss, even in general terms, unusual circumstances such as the age of the boy, the fact that a toy gun was involved or whether, as Simak claims, the boy reported the toy himself.

Pallone directed the Valley News Dispatch to school policies regarding weapons and weapon replicas on its website.

The policy regarding weapons in the New Kensington-Arnold School District was adopted in 2008.

It defines a weapon: “The term shall include but not be limited to any knife, cutting instrument, cutting tool, nanchaku (sic), firearm, shotgun, rifle, replication of a weapon, and/or any other tool, instrument, or implement capable of inflicting serious body harm.”

Regarding bringing a weapon replica to school, the policy says “the board prohibits students from possessing and bringing weapons and replicas of weapons into any school district buildings, onto school property, to any school-sponsored activity, and onto any public vehicle providing transportation to school or a school-sponsored activity.”

Regarding punishment of bringing a weapon or weapon replica to school, the policy says, “the school district shall expel for a period of not less than one (1) year any student who violates this weapons policy. Such expulsion shall be given in conformance with formal due process proceedings required by law. The Superintendent may recommend modifications of such expulsion requirement on a case-by-case basis.”

School board President Robert Pallone said he was not aware of the incident and said he would not comment on any specific incident.

Regarding the disciplinary process involving an informal hearing, he said, “They will follow the policy and the law, and they will make the appropriate discretionary decision.”

Steve Robinson, spokesman with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the discipline process regarding such cases varies from district to district and depends on the policy’s wording. The association helps districts across the state develop school policies.

“Years ago, there used to be a lot of ‘zero tolerance’ policies, and I think that those have kind of fallen out of favor,” Robinson said. “There’s usually more leniency given in policies that we help to develop.”

He said giving the superintendent discretion in meting out discipline gives districts more leniency.

Robinson said that weapon replicas are often included in a regular weapons policy because it’s hard to tell the difference and could lead to something more serious.

“I think that the underlying reasoning behind those types of language is just to convey the seriousness of weapons and even if you are bringing a toy gun just as a joke, it could be a very serious thing,” he said.

Self-reporting not normally addressed

As far as a student self-reporting an incident rather than being caught with it, Robinson said there generally isn’t any language regarding that in policies.

“It doesn’t typically address that situation,” he said. “There are 100 different situations that could happen. It’s hard to put all the scenarios into a policy.”

Robinson couldn’t comment on the effectiveness of weapons policies because the association doesn’t collect that data.

Simak said his son has been suspended three times, but isn’t violent. He said he was suspended once for getting into an argument with a friend and pushing him. Another suspension was for an incident regarding teasing on a school bus.

Simak said he understands there’s a process the school has to go through.

But he believes the principal should have been able to make her own call as far as disciplinary action. And he doesn’t think his son deserves to be suspended for telling the truth.

“What was he supposed to do?” he said. “Just hide it and keep it in his bag so he doesn’t get in trouble?”

Emily Balser is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-7710 or [email protected].

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