By Aaron Reiss
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A game resembling hot potato broke out last week at a gym class at Pershing Middle School. But the object being passed around was a white-and-chrome lighter shaped like a handgun. According to student accounts, it changed hands numerous times, with some kids waving it like a gun. One girl feigned getting shot.
A coach caught sight of the mischief and quickly brought it to a halt -- literally blowing the whistle on the horseplay. The lighter dropped to the ground, and the children froze in their tracks.
By all indications in today's climate of youthful violence, carrying the firearm-looking lighter to school was a serious infraction for the kid who brought it onto campus. And the other kids in the group where it was being handled also would be in store for some discipline.
But in the fallout that followed the May 9 incident, all eight -- they ranged from sixth- to eighth-graders -- were ordered expelled. For an entire year.
That means they will be sent to an alternative school, where their classmates for the next year will include youths who have committed school-related felonies.
"[School officials] have done something very drastic for a little thing. It's a toy gun," protests Florentino Arellano. His 11-year-old son, Ivan, was expelled.
HISD officials say they were just following the letter of law -- in this case, the district's student conduct code. "The rules are absolute.Replicas of guns are not allowed in school. To possess one is a violation of the Code of Student Conduct," HISD spokesman Terry Abbott says in an e-mail.
The clause pertaining to replicas of guns was added in the aftermath of last year's massacre at Columbine High School, and other shootings and violence at schools elsewhere in the nation.
Abbott says the student who brought the lighter to school pretended it was a real gun, and a district police officer said she would react as if it was a real firearm. Three more students were suspended for not reporting the gun to school workers.
Some students say they initially mistook the lighter for a real gun, but the prevailing mood was one of curiosity and playfulness, not fear. Ivan, a sixth-grader, says he held the lighter for about ten seconds before joining a baseball game.
Parents are not protesting that their children violated school rules. And they do not quarrel with the notion that the kids should be punished for that. It's the severity that they find appalling. While school officials pointed out the infraction, they did not say if district policy requires such severe punishment or if there is discretion allowed in determining the appropriate discipline.
Ivan's mother, Rosalia, recalls reading over the code of conduct with her child. She believes rules should be respected, but that there should be leeway when the case involves youthful spontaneity. "We the parents try to lead them down the right road, with no errors in life. But if a child is with other kids, they get into mischief. Maybe they thought it was a game."
Under the code, the students committed an offense on par with assault, terrorist threats and drug dealing, says Danny Fiorella, an assistant principal at Pershing. Most, if not all, of the expelled students had good behavioral records at Pershing, but that had no bearing on the case, Fiorella says.
"You're trying to take your job seriously and keep the school safe and orderly," Fiorella says. "Adolescents do silly things because they're impulsive and they don't think. But unfortunately, when you have to punish them based on the Code of Student Conduct it is a tough decision."
Fiorella declined to discuss the specifics of the case and deferred questions to Joel Willen, the school's principal, who did not return calls. Abbott confirms that the students were ousted, though he insists they were not expelled, but rather "reassigned" to an alternative school.
Seventh-grader Roberto Hernandez was the student who brought the lighter to school. He had bought it the previous weekend at a flea market and wanted to show it off to his friends.
Hernandez says he passed the lighter to a friend at the beginning of gym class. He remained inside playing basketball, while the other boy took the lighter with him to the playing fields.
"I realize I did a big mistake. I should have thought before taking it [to school]," he says in a faltering voice. "I will accept my consequences. I don't know what to say.It was my fault that [the others] got in trouble. I really feel bad about that."
His parents, both Mexican immigrants, came down hard on their son when they heard what he had done. His father, Ramiro, was particularly upset, because he had given the boy the money to buy the lighter, which contained no fluid, as a toy. He says he never thought Roberto would take it to school.
"I was very angry. I said, 'You've never given us problems before. And now this? I won't tolerate it!' "
Ramiro Hernandez says he now takes his son to his carpenter jobs so the boy can experience for himself the hard life of manual labor and thus might strive for more.