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Aurora family hopes petition will prevent boy’s expulsion over toy gun

The family 9-year-old East Aurorstudent Anthony Gonzales hope they can fight Gonzales' possible expulsiover toy gun. Clockwise from left: Father

The family of 9-year-old East Aurora student Anthony Gonzales hope they can fight Gonzales' possible expulsion over a toy gun. Clockwise from left: Father Michael Gonzales, sister Nicolette Gonzales, mother Ronda Feliciano, brother Michael A. Gonzales, Anthony Gonzales and family friend Elva Maria Mendez. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 19, 2014 6:36AM

AURORA — When Ronda Feliciano saw her 9-year-old son Anthony Gonzales sitting in the office at East Aurora’s Gates Elementary School on a Tuesday earlier this month, she was surprised.

Feliciano had come to the school to attend a walking club and had no idea why her fourth-grader, who she describes as shy and quiet, was in trouble.

Then the principal showed Feliciano the toy gun her son had in his backpack.

It was realistic-looking, Feliciano recalled. Black, about 8 inches long. The orange cap on the end appeared to have been removed.

Feliciano could hardly believe it. Her son is not allowed to play with guns at home, she said, and she had no idea he had the toy gun at school.

According to a letter sent to Feliciano that was provided to the Beacon-News, Gonzales was given 10 days of out-of-school suspension for the possession of a weapon on school grounds.

His referral form dated Feb. 4 noted the “student brought toy gun to school (look-a-like).”

East Aurora spokesman Matt Hanley declined to comment, citing student privacy.

Feliciano hoped the discipline would end with a suspension and returned to the school later that week to pick up her son’s homework.

In Gonzales’ classroom, Feliciano saw her son’s desk had been pushed to the corner, she said. That was when she started to fear that her son wouldn’t be coming back to school.

“That’s when I knew, ‘Wow, this is serious,’” she said.

According to the district’s parent handbook, the school board can expel a student for up to two years for the possession of any type of weapon, which includes “‘look-alikes’ of any firearm.”

Before a student can be expelled, a hearing officer listens to evidence of the student’s alleged misconduct and submits a written report to the school board, which makes a decision within 10 days.

Gonzales’ expulsion hearing is set for Wednesday afternoon, according to records provided to the Beacon-News.

Feliciano said she feels like her son is being “used as an example.”

According to a 2011 article in the Illinois School Board Journal, a national zero-tolerance policy for weapons with minimum one-year expulsions for students who bring weapons to school started after the federal Gun-Free Schools Act went into effect in 1994. Since then, suspensions and expulsions in Illinois have increased.

In January, President Barack Obama’s administration released new guidelines on school discipline that criticized zero-tolerance policies and expressed concern that nationwide harsh discipline measures are disproportionally affecting minority students.

While safety is a priority, federal officials said, too many schools are suspending, expelling or arresting students for issues that could be handled more constructively.

“There should be consequences,” Feliciano said of her son’s behavior. “I believe a suspension is enough, but an expulsion seems harsh…. I really want him to stay in school, so I’m doing anything I can to help him.”

Online help

Elva Maria Mendez, a friend of the family who attended school with two of Feliciano’s older children, decided she wanted to help the family fight a possible expulsion, which would affect where Gonzales could attend school.

“There’s a difference between a threat and irresponsibility,” said Mendez, who is a senior at East Aurora High School. “He didn’t mean to take it to school. Everyone makes mistakes.”

Mendez created an online petition on Feb. 7, two days after Gonzales’ suspension started, asking for signatures in support of Gonzales not being expelled.

Within 10 days the petition had more than 9,700 signatures — just a few hundred shy of Mendez’ 10,000-signature goal.

“My expectations were about 500,” she said. “I made the goal so high so people would feel eager to sign for Anthony.”

Mendez plans to speak on behalf of Gonzales at his expulsion hearing and to present the signatures to the hearing officer and school board members. She said she hopes the petition boosts Gonzales’ chances of not being expelled.

“Some people just kind of accept it and I think that should change,” she said.

Gonzales’ father, Michael Gonzales, who is a teacher’s assistant at East High and coaches freshman boys basketball, said he believed his brother had given his son the toy gun sometime in the last year.

Gonzales said another student told the teacher about the gun in his son’s backpack.

“It wasn’t like my son was flashing the gun,” Gonzales said.

The family is worried if Gonzales is expelled that he won’t do well at an alternative school, if he is allowed to attend one, and that he will miss out on playing sports.

“For him to go to a school with kids who are a threat, he wouldn’t be able to handle it,” Feliciano said. “His nickname at home is ‘baby.’”

The majority of students expelled in Illinois do not receive educational services, according to the most recent state data available from school year 2011-12. That year 1,256 expelled students received no educational services, while 105 received services.

Feliciano said she hopes the online petition and her son’s good academic standing will convince officials not to expel him.

“I’d say right now this at least gets me 50 percent of a fight,” she said.

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