Two Massachusetts students were suspended from their high school after they posed for a photograph holding replica assault rifles, the same day a gunman opened fire inside a school in Washington.
Last Friday, Tito Velez and Jamie Pereira stood next to each other with their Airsoft rifles, which shoot plastic pellets and resemble assault weapons, for a picture ahead of their Homecoming dance, The Boston Globe reported on Wednesday. The students posted the image to Facebook with a caption that read, “Homecoming 2014.”
That day, an alleged gunman opened fire at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington, killing fellow schoolmate Zoe Galasso and critically wounding four others before turning the gun on himself. One of the victims, Gia Soriano, died from her injuries on Sunday. Local officials, including the police chief, called on the community and the entire country to make societal changes to prevent future mass shootings.
Administrators at Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School in Taunton on Monday suspended the teenagers for 10 days. The caption, which consequently linked their image to a school event, has been removed from the photo.
Velez later defended his actions during an interview with a local Boston news station.
“This isn’t dangerous, you can’t kill someone with it. We didn’t shoot anyone; we were pointing them at the floor,” he told WBZ-TV earlier this week. When the reporter asked if the couple intended to take the guns to school, Velez responded: “Never. That would be stupid.”
Pereira, Velez’s girlfriend, said their suspension and possible expulsion from school “is way too much.”
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People have rallied online in defense of the students. The United States Constitution guarantees their freedom of speech through the First Amendment. But their decisions not only linked the guns to a school event, but also created a disruption among other students in the midst of news headlines about recent shootings inside academic buildings. About 25% of the mass tragedies in the past 13 years occurred in an educational setting, according to a report published last month by the FBI.
“To tie that to one of our school events kind of puts it over the top, which brings us into it,” Richard Gross, superintendent of Bristol-Plymouth Regional Technical School, told WBZ. Taunton police said they would have canceled the dance if authorities were aware of the post on Friday.