Grand Island Public School District (GIPS) in Nebraska wanted 3-year-old Hunter Spanjer to change his name because they said it violated the school's weapons policy.
I am outraged. But more than that, I realize that students like Hunter need advocates.
As a teacher I've had students with some unique names but never once have I taken it upon myself to rename a child.
Actually, it wasn't Hunter's audibly spoken name that caused the unrest, it’s because Hunter is deaf and communicates through sign language. The school district took issue with his name sign because it resembles a gun and therefore infringes on their policy that forbids children from bringing "any instrument that looks like a weapon" to school. Apparently Hunter's small fingers—thumbs folded, index and middle fingers crossed—could be confused with a gun so they told him to change his name sign.
Not only is it absurd, but it shows a lack of sensitivity, respect and understanding of Deaf culture and family privilege. The school failed to consider the cultural identity of the child, Hunter’s linguistic development and the family's right to name their child. A name is a very personal decision—whether it is in English or ASL—and not one that rests with the school.
What Grand Island public school needs is a little education. Name signs are given according to set parameters. For example, they should be given by a Deaf person (the capital D in "Deaf" signifies someone who is culturally deaf with ties to the Deaf community) or at the very least by a hearing parent who signs. Name signs can reflect some physical trait or characteristic of an individual and may incorporate the first letter in his name. Hunter's name sign is a modified form of the letter "H." Over time Hunter's name sign may change—this is a normal developmental process for signers—but that decision is his.
As a deaf child attending a mainstream program Hunter has very little power. Taking away his name sign is a very significant blow. However, having Hunter at this school can help educate staff and students about Deaf culture. That is why diversity is crucial.
Rebecca Marshall, former principal at PS347 The American Sign Language and English Lower School in New York City said this situation could have been avoided if the school had at least one person on staff who was deaf and involved in the education of children who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Marshall applauded Hunter's parents who are strong advocates for their child but pointed out that without a community outcry the outcome would have been quite different.
When we hear of something like this happening it is up to all of us to step up and be that advocate who gives voice to a child who needs it most.
Wellbrock is an early elementary teacher working with both deaf and hearing students in New York City.