The disquieting news that a pair of seventh-grade children, Khalid Caraballo and Aidan Clark, were suspended from school in Virginia Beach for the high crime of playing with an airsoft gun on their parents’ private property has been misinterpreted in almost all quarters as just another in the long line of the fringe skirmishes that make up America’s ongoing struggle over firearms. Yet insofar as guns are the issue at all in this case, they are but a secondary consideration; the detail, perhaps, but not the story.
In truth, the implications here are much wider and much more troubling, touching as they do on foundational questions about property rights, the remit of the public school system, and the nature of American civil society. Contrary to the now infamous beliefs of the likes of Hillary Clinton and Melissa Harris-Perry, children in America do not “belong” to the community — and nor would Americans be any better off if they did. In free societies, schools are not designed to serve as a mandatory means by which the Bismarckian state may seek to shape the young, but instead to act merely as a service to which parents can choose to send their kids for basic education if they so wish. This is to say that schools may well act in loco parentis, but they may not act as ipsi parentes.
Had the two children in Virginia Beach actually brought real guns into school, in clear violation of both the school’s explicit policy and of federal law, it seems that administrators would have been thoroughly within their rights to punish them. Likewise, if they had shown off in the classroom their airsoft guns, which, although basically toys, certainly do not belong in school. But the children did no such thing. Instead, they played with them on their parents’ property before school and then dispensed with them before they reached the bus.
This is indisputably true and, as a result, it remains wholly immaterial whether the pair was expelled for this incident alone or, as the school claimed in its defense, it was the last among a long train of grievances. They should not have been punished at all. Why? Because, whatever one thinks of children’s playing with airsoft guns, the events for which they were reproved did not take place within the school’s jurisdiction. Indeed, even if the children involved had done something illegal outside of school — which they did not — we might ask if we honestly want schools getting involved in doling out secondary punishment for infractions that do not concern them. Should a school put a child in detention if he gets a ticket for jaywalking, for example?
Guns are relevant here inasmuch as they probably explain the degree of the hysteria, which one suspects would have been diminished had the two children been playing with something else. Axes and hatchets are also illegal in most schools, but I am struggling to imagine a faculty punishing a child for playing with a toy version of either in his own yard. Either way, the unlovely truth is that the children in this case were penalized publicly for refusing to behave in their private lives in a way of which the local government approves.
This, without putting too fine a point on it, is tyranny, and the underlying principle is a rotten one. If a child’s parents are unreconstructed racists and expose him to all sorts of bigotry at home, are we to assume that he can be punished even if he is a model student when within the grounds of the school? If not, why not? What about clothes? Should one be punished for wearing offensive or commercial-heavy clothing in one’s own yard if there is a possibility that other schoolchildren might see the offending words from the school bus? What about more conservative school districts that do not tolerate cross-dressing children in the classroom? If Charles dresses up as Charlotte for a day and roams around the lawn, would our progressive arbiters of taste be content if his school later punished him for it?
The British free-speech outrages that I have catalogued here over the past two years are a neat demonstration of what happens when a society begins to privilege the subjective “discomfort” of individual citizens over the universal principles of liberty and the rule of law. The city code in Virginia Beach holds that it is in no way illegal for children in Virginia Beach to own or fire airsoft guns on private property, affirming that “no person shall use a pneumatic gun except at approved shooting ranges or within private property.” And yet according to the website of TV station WAVY in Portsmouth, Va., the 911 caller who sparked the incident evidently believed that her sensibilities trumped both the laws of the state and the sacred distinction between the public and the private.
The caller told the dispatcher that she knew that the airsoft gun Khalid was using was “not a real one.” Nevertheless, she continued, “it makes people uncomfortable. I know that it makes me [uncomfortable], as a mom, to see a boy pointing a gun.” In response to this brazen waste of the police’s time, the cops contacted the school and set the ball rolling on the suspensions. The caller is, naturally, entirely within her rights to feel uncomfortable — I imagine that I would experience a similar feeling were I ever to engage her in conversation — but she is not entitled to involve the public authorities and ask them to intervene.
This could have been, to use the president’s words, “a teachable moment.” Authorities could have used the woman’s behavior kindly to remind the public that the police are not there to prevent citizens from feeling uncomfortable and that the schools do not exist to impose upon children the prevailing views of the local education board. That authorities chose to follow the opposite course in both instances portends ill for the citizens of Virginia Beach and for other jurisdictions across the country.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.