The parents of a 6-year-old kindergarten student, expelled from Sumter School District for having a broken, clear plastic toy gun in her backpack at Alice Drive Elementary School earlier this month, think the district overreacted in removing their daughter from school.
Meanwhile, officials with Sumter School District say their district policies required them to not show any leniency and they were forced by their policies to remove the kindergartner from school.
This expulsion decision was made, according to the parents of the student, despite the efforts of several of the educators who work directly with the child to stop the expulsion.
In addition, there are questions as to whether the written district policy was interpreted correctly by school officials.Naomi's Friday morning
The morning of Jan. 4 started like many others for the McKinney family. Angela McKinney was rushing, trying to get her children ready for school. As the family climbed into their car, she remembered her youngest child, Naomi, had show and tell that morning, and told her to run inside and quickly grab something. Naomi did, climbed back into the car, and she and her brothers headed off to school without any concerns.
A short time later, McKinney said she received a phone call from Sheree Boozer, principal at Alice Drive Elementary, informing her Naomi was being questioned by police officers.
It turned out the toy Naomi took for show-and-tell was not the new Barbie doll Angela thought her daughter had grabbed, but rather one of her older brother's toys.
As the McKinneys describe it, the toy is an old, broken, beat-up toy gun, incapable of firing and held together with camouflage pattern duct tape on its tip and butt. Through the clear plastic of the toy, McKinney said, you can see the pieces of its broken mechanism and the green BBs the gun was once able to fire years ago.
"This gun in no way looks like a real gun. It's crystal clear, and you know it's a toy the moment you look at it," Naomi's father, Hank McKinney, said.
While waiting for class to start, the McKinneys said, Naomi told one of the kindergarten teachers at Alice Drive what she had in her backpack for show and tell. That teacher then went into the child's backpack, the McKinneys said, pulled the toy out, showed it to Naomi's homeroom teacher, and the two teachers proceeded to take it to Boozer's office.
"When Ms. Boozer called me about what happened, she told me she thought twice about calling the police," Angela McKinney said. "She cried to me the day this happened."
Naomi's parents said they arrived at the school shortly after police. The whole time, Naomi sat in Boozer's office, talking with officers and educators, waiting for the situation to be resolved. Shortly thereafter she found herself headed home.
"I didn't want to cause any harm, I was trying to show my friends this little tiny gun that was kind of pretty. I just thought they would like to see it," Naomi said this week.
Appeals in vain
Less than a week later on Jan. 10, the McKinneys appeared before the district's Discipline Hearing Panel, trying to get Naomi back with her classmates at Alice Drive.
In their support, Angela McKinney said a total of seven educators at Alice Drive - teachers and administrators - either provided letters of support or appeared directly before the panel, speaking on behalf of Naomi, requesting the panel reinstate the child. Naomi also spoke to the panel on her own behalf.
The McKinneys left the meeting without a formal decision, but said they felt confident their child would be returning to school shortly. Five days later, they learned this would not be the case.
A letter dated Jan. 15 from Henrietta Green, chief student support services officer for the district, stated: "Please advise Naomi that her presence is not allowed on any school property/bus or at any school sponsored activity on or off campus. She will be subject to the criminal charge of trespassing."
"She cannot even be in my vehicle when I go to pick up my other children," Angela McKinney said.
Technically, according to the letter from Green, Naomi was not expelled, but rather placed on "Administrative Homebased Services." According to the letter, school district officials said Naomi would "receive services through the homebased (sic) teacher."
As of Tuesday, this has not happened, the family said. In the four weeks since Naomi was removed from school, Angela McKinney said she has spoken several times with Anthonese Gamble, director of student services for the district, but that nothing has been arranged.
During the same time, the McKinneys also appealed directly to Superintendent Randolph Bynum, hoping he would overturn the decision of the board.
On Saturday, the family received a letter signed by Bynum, dated the previous day, informing them he would uphold the decision of the panel. In this letter, he also says, "The school district will provide the appropriate support and intervention to assist Naomi in completing her educational requirements."
Bynum would not comment on the expulsion, and the district has declined requests for The Item to see the toy in question.
"They're keeping it as their evidence," Angela McKinney said.
Interpretations of the policy
Shelly Galloway, public information coordinator for the district, declined comment but provided the following written statement: "It is the policy of the board of trustees to ensure the safety and welfare of its students and employees. The presence of a weapon or look alike is prohibited, and we work very closely with law enforcement when an incident of this nature arises. Sumter School District takes any potential threat very seriously and will remain vigilant in creating a safe and secure environment."
However, a section of the district's policy can be interpreted differently by some.
In the section cited in justifying Naomi's expulsion, the school's disciplinary code says "students will not possess any item capable of inflicting injury or harm (hereinafter referred to as a weapon) to persons or property when that item is not used in relation to a normal school activity at a scheduled time for the student."
According to the McKinneys, the toy gun she had in her backpack could not fire, making it about as dangerous as the Barbie doll Naomi's mother thought she had taken to school.
"The insides are completely broken. You can hear (the pieces rattling) in the inside," Angela McKinney said. "It's clear, it does not fire. You can pull the trigger many times, it does not fire."
The district's policy does reference "the presence of firearms or look-alikes or any other deadly instrument used for the infliction of bodily harm or death on school district property poses a severe threat of serious harm or injury to students and staff."
The paragraph states why the district has concerns. It, however, does not list punishment guidelines.
Without speaking on this specific case, Sumter School District Board of Trustees Chairman Keith Schultz said the district recognizes there are problems with how several of its policies are worded.
"Right now we're addressing committees, and our policy committee is ongoing, and those are some of the exact reasons why we're reviewing policies," Schultz said. He added there has been some concerns about the combination of policies from the recent district consolidation between the former Sumter District 2 and Sumter District 17 policies.
While he said he was not familiar with Naomi's case, Schultz said it highlights one of the issues the board needs to address.
"There has been some conversation about age appropriateness, if you will," Schultz said. "That is being revisited, if you will, by our policy committee. So we ought to be able to shore some of that up in the near immediate future."
The McKinneys, meanwhile, believe the district is simply overreacting to the recent tragedies at schools around the country.
"You're taking a young girl who loves education, and imposing an unfair punishment on her because of what's going on in the media," Hank McKinney said. "With all the incidents going on, with the Connecticut shooting, they (the administrators) are targeting the children now," Angela said. "I think they're trying to use the little children as an example of how far they're willing to go."
Planning for the future
While they await the home-based teacher promised by the district to begin coming to their home to teach, Angela McKinney said she and her mother have taken it upon themselves to try to keep Naomi's education continuing.
At the same time, the McKinneys are also looking for other educational alternatives for their daughter.
"It's not just her education she's missing out on, it's being around children her own age," Angela McKinney said. "We're trying to find a way to get her back into a school, rather than having a teacher come to her house," she said, still upset with the district's decision. "I don't think hiring a home-based teacher, when they could easily keep her in school and give her a different type of punishment (is necessary)."
There remains a possibility Naomi could return to Alice Drive this year. This would require the district Board of Trustees to overturn Bynum's decision.
"They clearly have the option to appeal to our board, over and above the superintendent, and that has been done many times, and my suspicion will be that's what these folks will do," Schultz said.
To do so, there must be a written request to appear before the board, he said.
The McKinneys said Tuesday they had contacted the district office to find out how to do this and were given the phone numbers for Schultz.
In the meantime, the McKinneys continue to look into options for Naomi. Until the situation is resolved, they warn other parents to make sure they keep a closer eye on what their children take to school.
"Don't take nothing for granted that your child knows better," Hank McKinney said. "Discuss, prior to sending your child to school, what's acceptable and not acceptable, as far as show and tell."