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US: Student suspended 10 days, faced possible expulsion for laser pointer use in school

Quinn Mulcahy, a 6th-grade student playing with a laser pointer in a school hallway on May 25 2019, was suspended for two weeks and faced possible expulsion, despite his possession and use apparently being legal.

The Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ “Code of Student Conduct” prohibits weapons in school. It specifically addresses pointers: “When a laser pen is used to threaten, intimidate or injure, it is considered a weapon.”

The boy’s father, Paul Mulcahy, told LaserPointerSafety.com that his son only aimed a legal, low-powered laser pointer at lockers and the wall in Landstown Middle School. He said it was never used in an aggressive or potentially harmful manner. Mulcahy's account was not disputed by the school.

Mulcahy wrote “no kid should be suspended or expelled for having a cat toy at school…. A ‘spork’ from the cafeteria if used to threaten, intimidate or injure would be a more likely weapon than a 2 mW laser pointer.”

During an initial meeting on May 30, principal John Parkman told Mulcahy he was instructed to use a “Discipline Guidelines” document not available to parents, students or the public. The principal did email the father a page from the Discipline Guidelines about laser pointers which seemed to restate the Code of Conduct language. (The VBCPS Office of Student Leadership confirmed on June 11 that the Discipline Guidelines are "administration-only.")

At a second meeting on June 2, the principal said the VBCPS Office of Student Leadership decided the infraction was “Inappropriate Property” and there would be no further punishment or action beyond the two-week suspension that had already occurred.

The Code of Student Conduct defines inappropriate property as follows: “The unauthorized possession of use of any type of personal property, which disrupts the educational process, is prohibited. Specifically prohibited are electronic devices when they are not authorized or being used for academic purposes (including cell phones), lighters and other items deemed inappropriate….”

In the Discipline Guidelines, the recommended penalty for Inappropriate Property depends on the property. One option is a verbal warning or reprimand called “Level 1.” The penalty for the boy turned out to be Level 6, suspension 6-10 days. As stated above, Mulcahy had been told that expulsion was also possible. Expulsion is "Level 8," the highest punishment level.

On June 9, the school returned the laser pointer to Mulcahy.

Mulcahy says he has retained a lawyer and may take action against the principal and/or school board.

The laser pointer

The laser pointer in question is a 4-in-1 pen, stylus, LED flashlight and laser pointer:

It was purchased from a souvenir shop in Duck, North Carolina for $3.75. It appears similar to or identical to pointers being sold at Amazon.com such as this “Amazon’s Choice:”

From the size, beam color, and limited battery power it is most likely Class 2 (under 1 mW) and possibly up to Class 3R (under 5 mW). Both laser classes are permitted for manufacture and sale as “laser pointers” under U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations.

Legality of the laser pointer

Laser pointers of these Classes are legal in the U.S. and the state of Virginia.

The city of Virginia Beach prohibits intentionally directing a laser or flashlight at another person’s eye. Assuming this was not done during the student’s laser use, his use would be legal under the city code.

The VBCPS’s published Code of Conduct, paragraph 24, prohibits laser pointers being used as a weapon “to threaten, intimidate or injure.” Otherwise, there is no prohibition on possession or use of laser pointers.

Student's conduct

On May 25 2019, Quinn came to school late after joining his father on a job interview for the both of them (they are voice artists for video and game productions). The boy was asked to step into a hallway to read paragraphs of a book, to catch up with the class in progress.

According to Mulcahy, It was during this time that Quinn was aiming the laser pointer at lockers, walls and other safe targets. The beam did not go through door windows or otherwise interfere with class.

Mulcahy said the school did not dispute the account of how his son used the laser pointer, and did not indicate there was any threatening, intimidating, injurious or other aggressive use.

Previous disciplinary action

Mulcahy’s son had only one previous disciplinary record with the school. This was a 1-day in-school suspension for “misuse of technology” after Quinn had opened a YouTube page on his Chromebook computer during a lesson.

Appropriate punishment

Mulcahy told LaserPointerSafety.com he supports the school confiscating the laser pointer as being a general nuisance (despite no specific prohibition against possession in the Code of Conduct). He is also fine with a reasonable disciplinary action such as after-school detention or a one-day suspension while the school investigates.

But he feels that a two-week suspension, and especially the threat of expulsion, was unwarranted both by his son’s actions and by the Code’s provisions.

Commentary from LaserPointerSafety.com

Paul Mulcahy called the editor of this website on May 28 2019, looking for more information about laser safety and any additional insight. The next day we sent a 6-page letter addressed “to whom it may concern” stating that the laser was safe, legal, not used as a weapon, and that possession was not prohibited by the Code of Conduct. The letter frequently noted that this opinion was based on the facts as stated by Paul Mulcahy, and that the analysis was “assuming this account is true.”

From reporting by LaserPointerSafety.com. We emailed this article to the principal and the VBCPS Director of Student Leadership on June 17, asking for any corrections, clarifications and comments. A reminder was sent June 20; neither responded. This article was published late June 21 2019.