After Columbine and other school shootings, anything even remotely resembling a weapon on school grounds is usually cause for serious alarm. So some parents in the Rye Neck School District have asked if the administration downplayed an incident earlier this month in which a 6th grade student brought a plastic air gun to school, fired it and hit at least another student in the leg.
There were no injuries, and the school called the police. The alleged shooter was taken into custody and charged with unlawful possession of a weapon by a person under 16. The student, who is not being named because he's a juvenile, was suspended from school for the remainder of the year.
A number of parents complained that school officials tried to minimize the April 7 incident by sending a "backpack memo" to the parents of 6th graders two days later and by calling the plastic gun a "toy gun." The police report described the gun as "air-powered BB pistol."
A follow-up letter from the district superintendent, sent to parents on April 16, called it a "small plastic spring-loaded gun that fires plastic BBs." In that letter, district superintendent Dr. Peter Mustich wrote that the school's "communication on this matter could have been better" by notifying all middle school parents (not just parents of 6th graders) about the incident earlier.
For many parents and students, that was the end of the story. Mustich said in a phone interview that after sending the second email, he received four or five responses from parents and "haven't heard a word since."
Mustich also said the police report description of the gun as a "BB gun" was incorrect.
"It was a spring-loaded plastic air gun with an orange tip and soft pellets," he said.
There is a difference: A BB (which stands for ball bearing) gun shoots metal pellets.
Airsoft guns fire plastic projectiles, which are safer than the metal pellets in traditional BB guns. Air guns are popular for playing paintball-style combat games.
Both kinds of guns have been considered toys (remember 9-year-old Ralphie Parker's wish in "A Christmas Story"?), but experts say they can also be dangerous weapons.
Air guns are illegal to sell in the five boroughs of New York and Yonkers, but not in Westchester. The White Plains Sports Authority carries airsoft guns, which range in price from $12 to $180, but will not sell them to anyone under 18. Neither Miller's nor Toy Box carry them.
Experts warn there are real risks associated with "non-powder" guns, which include BB guns, pellet guns, air guns and paintball guns.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, there were approximately 16,490 BB/pellet gun-related injuries in 2008 (a national estimate, and the most current figures available). Between 1990 and 2000, the CPSC reported 39 non-powder gun-related deaths, 32 of which were children 15 and under.
The greatest risk from airsoft guns, however, are eye injuries, according to several reports. No airsoft gun fatalities have been reported in the U.S., but there are cases where the police have shot and killed a person holding an airsoft gun because they thought it was a real gun.
A 2004 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics said "non-powder guns should never be characterized as toys."
Rye Neck parents Andrew and Andrea Sambrook are active in the gun-control group PAX and were particularly troubled by the school's response to the shooting.
"The school diminished the incident in my eyes," Andrew Sambrook said. "The message they sent to the student body at large was that this was no big deal."
Sambrook acknowledged that he is "hyper-sensitive" about gun control issues and probably does not represent the majority of parents, but said the shooting provides an opportunity to educate students about school violence.
At a recent Principal Advisory Committee meeting, he said he suggested the school give students information about PAX's Speak Up program, intended to prevent school violence by encouraging kids to report threats through an anonymous toll-free number. Sambrook said he offered to underwrite the cost of distributing Speak Up flyers and posters for the school.
Superintendent Mustich said that the district is working with the organization Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) to educate students about school violence.
In this particular case, Sambrook said public relations trumped student safety and hopes the incident can serve as a lesson for the future.
"People don't want to believe these things could happen at a nice school in Westchester County," he said. "I hope they do the right thing and at least put up some posters."
Editor's note: Tania McMenamin contributed reporting to this story.