In years past, zero-tolerance weapons policies in overzealous school districts have ensnared students for “weapons” such as a Cub Scout camping utensil, a 2-inch Lego toy gun and even a misappropriated chicken finger. But last week, Grand Island Public Schools officials in Grand Island, Neb. went for the record in zero-tolerance hysteria when they sought to bar a three-year-old deaf student from using his name.
The student is Hunter Spanjer, who communicates using a modified version of American Sign Language called Signing Exact English or S.E.E., which is often used with young children to help bolster their English skills. The registered S.E.E. sign for Hunter’s name is the forefinger and middle fingers crossed and extended, slightly resembling the ASL sign for gun, or a finger gun children might make during a game of cops and robbers.
Hunter’s parents were told by school administrators that the name sign would need to be changed, as it violated the school’s weapons policy that forbids students “to knowingly and voluntarily possess, handle, transmit or use any instrument in school, on school grounds or at school functions that is a firearm, weapon, or looks like a weapon.” Further, Grand Island Public Schools Marketing and Communication Coordinator Jack Sheard told the New York Daily News that the sign was “not an appropriate thing to do in school.”
After taking their story to the local media, the Spanjers have received a nationwide outpouring of support. Thousands have taken to Facebook and online petition sites to register their disgust, and hundreds of others have contacted the school district by phone and email.
Additionally, the National Association of the Deaf came to Hunter’s defense, stating, “The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) condemns the actions of Grand Island Public School in Nebraska to require that a 3-year-old deaf boy change the way he signs his name. The NAD is prepared to assist the family in responding to Grand Island Public Schools including through legal action.” The NAD press release added, “The NAD is not aware of any other schools that have banned a name sign; Grand Island Public Schools is likely the first to ever to do so.” The ACLU has also made clear its disapproval, raising questions about whether the school district’s decision violates Hunter’s right to practice his chosen form of speech.
Following the public outcry and threats of legal action, the school system appears to be backing away from its original position. In response to a media request, the school district stated, “Grand Island Public Schools is not requiring any current student with a hearing impairment to change his or her sign language name.”
Hopefully this issue will be resolved so that Hunter can keep signing his name and the taxpayers of Grand Island are spared the expense of defending a mindless overreaction.