Over the past few years, we’ve seen students around the country suspended for Pop Tarts that were bitten into a vaguely gun-shaped pastry, having a water gun in the front seat of a car, pretending a stick was a gun, and more. Last week, an Ohio middle schooler was slapped with a 10-day suspension for liking a photo of an airsoft gun on Instagram. An assistant principal at the middle school wrote on the expulsion form that 13-year-old Zach Bowlin was being suspended for “liking a post on social media that indicated potential school violence.” The photo in question was an airsoft pistol with the caption “Ready.” Zach’s dad says his son and friends play airsoft in a field near their house, and that the photo was simply referencing a normal activity, not school violence.
The superintendent of schools in Edgewood City claimed his hands were tied. Russ Fussnecker explained, “When you’re dealing with school districts nowadays and there are pictures of guns, regardless of the kind of gun it is, it’s a gun. And if there are certain images or words, I can’t determine if that’s playful or real. And until I can get to an investigation, I have to look into it, those students have to be removed.”
After meeting with Zach’s parents, the school lifted the suspension for the Instagram like. The student who posted the photo of the airsoft gun, however, is still suspended. Zach’s dad, Marty Bowlin, told WLWT that he hopes there’s a happy resolution to the case and that “there’s got to be a happy medium between the both of them [the superintendent and the student]." Let’s hope.
I understand Superintendent Fussnecker’s position. We live in a hyperactive media environment when it comes to firearms (just look at what happened to a student with a glue gun on a college campus last week). Fussnecker has to take any threat to student safety seriously. The thing is, though, there was no threat, implied or explicit, in the Instagram photo. Now that the benign reason for the Instagram post is known, there’s no reason for any student to be suspended. Chalk this one up to kids being kids—not kids being potential killers—and let the kids know that a few extra words in that Instagram post could’ve defused the whole situation. “Ready for airsoft with friends after school” is much harder to misunderstand than a simple “Ready.”
After I posted about this on Twitter, a “Cam & Co.” listener messaged me to tell me that while she homeschools her child, something similar had happened in her school district. It’s a rural area, one that, in her words, “sees a lot of absences on the first day of deer season.”
The thing is, though, there was no threat, implied or explicit, in the Instagram photo.Marty Bowlin described his son as a “country boy” who shoots, hunts and fishes. I have no doubt that Zach and his friends know how to be safe and responsible with airsoft guns, fishing poles and rifles, because they’ve been taught how to be safe and responsible with those things. If they’re like most kids, however, they probable haven’t had much education about how to be responsible on social media. I know I was blissfully unaware until a few years ago, when my neighbor had a conversation with me about some inappropriate things my then-12-year-old had shared with his new smartphone. I was embarrassed, because I naively assumed that he wasn’t even on any social media at the time. My son lost access to a phone for a year, and we had a lot of time to talk about what’s appropriate, how to be clear with your message, and other do’s and don’ts of social media.
I should’ve known better, and I should’ve known sooner, but at least I learned my lesson. As a gun owner, I want my kids to know how to be safe and responsible around firearms. A smart phone in the hands of the untrained has the power to ruin a life, if not take one, and it’s a new and sad fact of life that as parents, we better make sure that our kids have a basic understanding of social media safety, too.
Cam Edwards is the host of “Cam & Co.,” which airs live 2-5 p.m. EST on NRATV and midnight EST on SiriusXM Patriot 125. He lives with his family on a small farm near Farmville, Va. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @camedwards.