Angry parents are accusing a Simi Valley school board member of abusing her power to help her fifth-grade son avoid suspension after he was found with a toy gun on the campus of Justin Elementary School.
Trustee Carla Kurachi earlier this year convinced a school official not to suspend her son for two days--the district's usual policy for punishing students in possession of toy weapons--and now is requesting that the board soften its weapons policy on toy guns.
The gun brought to school by Kurachi's son, Scott, had a small, black plastic handle and a six-inch silver barrel that opened to display a bright red banner reading "BANG!" when the trigger was pulled.
Kurachi was with her son when he bought the toy, but did not know he brought it to school, she said.
She said she was called by school administrators in late October and told to come get her son from school because he had been found with the gun, which a student had seen sticking out of a book bag.
Kurachi refused, telling school administrator Sheila Robbins that she was interpreting the district's policy too strictly. Bowing to Kurachi, Robbins then decided to give the boy a warning and allowed him to remain in school.
The incident prompted Kurachi to ask her fellow school board members to ease the policy for toy guns at a November meeting. The board agreed to study the issue and directed staff to come back with a variety of options in January.
But after learning the policy could be altered, several parents showed up at the board meeting Tuesday night to protest both Kurachi's intervention on her son's behalf and any broader tampering with district policy.
"The message should be that everyone is expected to follow the rules," parent Janice DiFatta told board members. "How else can we a set a foundation for success?"
Board member Judy Barry agreed.
"We are models and we have to model our own policies," Barry said. "Our behavior is carefully scrutinized by the public."
Defending her position, Kurachi responded that a suspension for the fake gun would have been too severe and the board should consider meting out different punishments for different types of guns.
"They wanted to take his education away for two days," Kurachi said. "I refuse to give up my parental rights just because I'm a board member."
"Sometimes you have to tell a kid, 'That's not appropriate,' " she said in a separate interview. "I would not have had a problem if he had gotten a detention. We need to respond, understand and have compassion for our children. That's what I expect from a school. Have we lost that?"
In the aftermath of Tuesday's debate, Simi Valley Unified School District Supt. Mary Beth Wolford said Wednesday that she thinks the district's current zero tolerance policy on any toy guns brought to school should be maintained.
She noted that a Simi Valley kindergarten student was suspended for two days for carrying a pink squirt gun to school earlier this year and defended that action by saying that squirt guns are banned because they can be filled with harmful liquids such as chlorine bleach.
Violent incidents on Simi Valley campuses have declined since June, 1994, when the district implemented the current suspension policy, Wolford added.
"It's not done very often, but it makes a big difference at schools," Wolford said.
The Kurachi case is the second controversy over the district's weapons policy since it was adopted. Last spring, a Simi Valley family questioned a two-day suspension meted out to their 12-year-old son because he brought a key chain with an empty bullet cartridge to Hillside Junior High School.
But district officials point to the slaying of Valley View Junior High student Chad Hubbard, when arguing for the zero tolerance policy. The 14-year-old was stabbed to death by another student wielding a knife with a blade shorter than three inches.
Several parents at Tuesday night's meeting urged the board to keep its current policy as it applies to both real weapons and toys. Students bringing real weapons to school face expulsion.
"I have witnessed a steady growth of violence in the street and school yards," said parent Jim Bird, a firefighter in Los Angeles. "This violence at many times coincides with the relaxation of standards on school grounds."
Bird also said that allowing some toy guns and not others would encourage children who wanted to bring weapons onto schools to disguise their guns, perhaps by painting them pastel colors.
"At the earliest ages, they should be suspended," he told the board.
Kurachi said she came out from Tuesday night's board meeting to find a sign reading "Bang! You're Dead" tucked under her windshield wiper.
The controversy at Tuesday's meeting served as a prelude to the formal board consideration of possible revisions to the policy in mid-January.
Options for the board range from totally excluding toy, imitation and replica guns from the campuses to allowing principals to define punishment for each, Wolford said.
Trustee Norman Walker said Tuesday night that he is willing to look at all of the options.
"It's a legitimate question, I think it should be raised," said Walker.
Walker, a former private school administrator, said he did not think that any toys brought from home are appropriate on campus.
"But we have to have some common sense," Walker said.