A South Eastern School District fifth-grader was suspended in October for pantomiming shooting a classmate with an imaginary bow and arrow, and now the situation has been taken up by a civil-liberties organization based in Virginia.

The Rutherford Institute sent a letter to district Superintendent Rona Kaufmann, asking that the district rescind the suspension of John Jones and remove the weapons notation in his permanent record.

The institute has worked on several cases involving school zero-tolerance weapons policies the institute claims violate the students' liberties by refusing to address them on a case-by-case basis.

Just 'imagination': According to the group, John and his bow and arrow now fall into that category.

"You're punishing kids for imagination," said John Whitehead, founder and president of the institute. "If you go see 'The Hunger Games,' (Disney's) 'Brave,' they're shooting bows and arrows everywhere."

During the week of Oct. 14, 10-year-old John -- called "Johnny" by his mother, Beverly Jones, as she recounts what he told her -- walked to the front of his classroom at South Eastern Middle School/West to get a pencil.

Jones said as John returned to his seat, one of his friends used a book to make a shooting motion at him. John returned "fire," miming the actions of drawing back the string of a bow to shoot an imaginary arrow.

Reported: A girl in the class reported the exchange to the teacher, who pulled the boys out of the classroom to reprimand them for the disruption.

That's where the incident should have ended, the institute said in the letter to Kaufmann.

But instead, the boys were both suspended according the school's zero-tolerance policy against weapons, regardless of whether the weapon was real, a replica or imagined.

Consistency: Jones said she received a call from the principal, who said her son was being suspended for "shooting" at another student.

Despite her protests, Jones recalls Principal Jon Horton saying the punishment needed to stay consistent with other violations of the zero-tolerance policy and that the policy determined the threat with a weapon would go into John's permanent school record.

Jones said it was then she decided to contact the Rutherford Institute, which she had heard about in the past.

Rescinding the suspension would basically be a formality, as John already served one day of in-school suspension in Horton's office, Jones said.

Consequences: But she wants others to know the consequences for charades.

"Parents need to know if their kid makes a sign with their fingers, then they're going to have a suspension for threatening with a firearm," Jones said. "That's ridiculous."

The institute asked that the district respond to the letter by Dec. 13. After that, Whitehead said, it will be up to the Jones family as to how the case proceeds.

Superintendent Kaufmann said it is the district's policy, because of privacy laws, not to discuss specific instances of punishment with the public.

Reached out: Kaufmann said she had not been contacted by the Jones family before she received the letter from the institute, but reached out to them in an attempt to discuss the matter further.

"In my mind, that's the appropriate thing to do," Kaufmann said.

Jones said she has not set up an appointment to talk with Kaufmann, and is discussing how to proceed with the institute. Jones said Kaufmann was "very nice," and told Jones she wished she had contacted her first.

But Jones said her children just started in public school two years ago. In Maryland, where Jones is originally from, superintendents oversee an entire county of schools. Jones said she had believed the principal would be the best point of contact from the school.

Zero tolerance: Whitehead, at the institute, said the district and others with zero-tolerance weapons policies should rework their rules so punishment is issued only when school officials determine an intent to use a weapon.

Jones, too, thinks the district should rework its policy -- or at least explain the ramifications "zero tolerance" can have. 

As for her son, Jones said, he's "walking on eggshells," now concentrating more on avoiding getting in trouble instead of learning anything in the classroom.

-- Reach Nikelle Snader at nsnader@yorkdispatch.com.