Posted by Wordsmith on 18 June, 2007 at 2:45 pm. Be the first to comment!


Close up of Austin Nakata’s altered mortarboard for his fifth grade promotion ceremony at Cornerstone at Pedregal School in RPV. After Austin cut off the soldiers’ hands to remove guns, he added gauze and blood.

For more images, go to my blogpost at Sparks from the Anvil

Staff Writer

Who knew a 2-inch toy army man could cause such a stir?

A fifth-grade promotion ceremony in Rancho Palos Verdes turned into a free-speech battleground Thursday, when students were asked to remove weapons from toys that had been placed on mortarboard caps because of the school’s zero-tolerance policy for weapons on campus.

Each year, students decorate wide caps with princesses, football goal posts, zebras, guitars and other items to express their personalities and career goals. Cornerstone at Pedregal School is the only Palos Verdes Peninsula public school to practice the tradition.

On Thursday, before the ceremony, one boy was told he couldn’t participate unless he agreed to clip off the tips of the plastic guns carried by the minuscule GIs on his cap. Ten others complied with the order before the event.

Parents reacted angrily, calling Principal Denise Leonard’s decision censorship, but the Palos Verdes Peninsula School District defended her.

Cole McNamara and Austin Nakata, 11-year-old buddies who share an interest in all things military, said they put the toys on their hats to support American troops in Iraq.

"I was kind of mad because they just went over and clipped them off and didn’t say anything about it," Austin said.

His father, Glen Nakata, said he was disappointed that parents were not approached or consulted on elimination of the "firearms."

"I felt they were keeping the boys from expressing their patriotism, their strong beliefs toward the military," he said.

Glen Nakata’s father served in the U.S. Air Force. And Austin wants to attend a military academy when he’s older. Cole wants to join the Marine Corps, said his father, Paul McNamara.

To treat the "injuries" caused by the order to remove the offending weaponry, Austin wrapped the plastic stumps in white gauze and painted on faux blood.

The principal pulled Cole aside Thursday morning, handed him a pair of scissors and said the guns had to go.

"We’re supporting our troops," Cole said. "But I wanted to graduate, so I just cut the guns off."

A teacher at Cornerstone started the mortarboard tradition about a decade ago. At Thursday’s ceremony, the 62 fifth-graders each gave a 30-second speech in the auditorium, as their pictures flashed on a large screen.

Leonard, a first-year principal, didn’t respond to several requests for comment, deferring to district administrators, who said the toys with miniature rifles and grenades violated a zero-tolerance weapons policy.

Leonard "directed students not place images of weapons on student-created mortarboards to be used in the promotion ceremony," according to a district statement. "The district fully supports her decision to comply with school rules and practices. In addition, practically all fifth-grade parents understood and accepted this decision and, in some cases, modified the student mortarboards, sans the weapon images."

In enforcing the decision, the district cited its Safe Schools policy and the federal Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, a federal law designed to remove firearms from schools.

Susan Liberati, an assistant superintendent, said she believes "the principal has interpreted district policy accurately, and we support her in that."

A copy of the district’s Safe Schools policy obtained by the Daily Breeze includes no mention of toy army men. Students found to be "possessing, selling or otherwise furnishing a firearm" are expelled for one year, the policy states.

Weapons are also mentioned in the board’s "weapons and dangerous instruments" policy that allows only authorized law enforcement or security personnel to possess "weapons, imitation firearms or dangerous instruments of any kind" on school grounds.

Board President Barbara Lucky declined comment on the incident or the policy.

"Sounds like a good question for legal counsel," Lucky said.


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