Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, has filed a bill that would prohibit schools from punishing students who use their hands, playthings and, yes, even pastry items to mimic firearms. The proposed legislation also would protect students through the fifth grade who play with toy guns or draw or possess pictures of guns.
Guillen said he filed the bill after a second- grader in suburban Maryland was suspended for two days in March 2013 for chewing his Pop- Tart into the shape of a gun. A similar situation has not arisen in Texas.
“Texas students shouldn’t lose instruction time for holding gun-shaped Pop-Tart snacks at school,” said Guillen. “This bill will fix this.”
The story of Josh Welch, who finished out the year in his Anne Arundel County school, grabbed national headlines and even netted the now 9-year-old a lifetime membership to the National Rifle Association. His teacher said the suspension followed a history of problematic behavior, but Welch’s case became a rallying point for gun rights advocates after his parents said the punishment represented a gross overreaction.
The incident was soon followed by similar cases in Virginia and Florida, where students were punished for mimicking gunplay with their fingers or toys. State lawmakers reacted, some passing so-called “Pop-Tart gun” bills to protect students from this type of punishment.
Sen. John Whitmire, who has filed legislation again this year to soften Texas’ harsh “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies, said Guillen’s bill has the right intention but could have unintended consequences.
“If I was voting today, I would vote against that bill,” Whitmire said. While he has not read the legislation, the Houston Democrat said he would be reluctant to place any restrictions on local school officials to determine proper disciplinary procedures. Guillen’s legislation includes flexibility for a school to discipline a student who “disrupts learning” or causes harm or the fear of harm to an educator or another student.
“I believe strongly that common sense should be the guide,” Whitmire said. “I just think you have to, in my judgment, leave it to local administrators and school campus administrators to weigh the circumstances.”
While her organization has not taken a stance on Guillen’s bill, Mary Mergler of the Austin-based advocacy group TexasAppleseed said most efforts to move away from zero-tolerance school discipline policies are positive.
“That sort of overly harsh punishment for behavior that really poses no threat to other students is exactly the type of school discipline we’d like to see reformed,” Mergler said. “Pushing students out of school for what is really minor misbehavior is really what’s contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline within the state of Texas.”
Guillen’s bill is likely to be popular with gun groups, which are making a concerted effort to pass legislation this coming year to legalize the open carrying of handguns in Texas.
Education and Second Amendment issues also promise to overlap frequently this session, with campus carry at the forefront and other bills proposing to allow firearms at school sporting events and school board meetings.