THOUSAND OAKS, CA—The button-making privileges of Mrs. Orlowski's fourth-grade class were suspended indefinitely Monday, when an estimated 15 students were found to have used the Harrison Elementary School button maker to create "wholly inappropriate" buttons.
"These students were trusted with school equipment, and they betrayed that trust," said teacher Karen Orlowski, 47, holding a pair of confiscated buttons reading "Suck My Ass" and "Farty Fart." "I signed this button maker out of the school supply closet so that the students could spend their lunch hour creating fun, colorful buttons for the upcoming student-council elections. Instead, I return to find this."
Continued Orlowski: "Those buttons were supposed to read 'Robert K. For Treasurer' and 'Danny Carter For V.P.,' not 'Mrs. Yanofsky Has Big Boobies.' Until someone comes forward with the names of all the students involved, I am forced to punish everyone."
At approximately 1 p.m., Orlowski returned from lunch to find students hurriedly gathering the scissors and scraps of paper that littered the floor and collecting buttons in different states of completion. She said she didn't think to inspect the buttons closely until she noticed Lindsay Chao, 10, wearing a button bearing the image of Marie Curie with a beard drawn onto her face.
Chao, one of the few students willing to discuss details of the incident, said she and her classmates started out with the best of intentions.
"We were honestly making buttons for the election for, like, a long time," Chao said, offering up four "Alyssa 4 Prez!!!" buttons as proof. "But then, Amanda [Petrakis] made this one that said 'Justin Timberlake 4 President,' and it just sorta went downhill from there."
According to Chao, after the Petrakis breakthrough, the buttons began to escalate in humor value, with each student trying to top the last one. Particularly aggressive in their efforts to push the envelope, Chao said, were the boys.
"The girls were doing a lot of buttons about stuff they liked, like The Backstreet Boys and horses," Chao said. "But then the boys started doing all these mean, funny ones, like 'Student Council Sucks' and 'Mr. Cecil Is Gay.' One boy made, like, 10 different buttons calling different people gay."
Before long, the slogan-driven buttons deteriorated into more random, visually oriented ones, with students making buttons out of magazine clippings, stickers, and items found around the classroom. One button depicted the hind quarters of a rhinoceros—an image cut out of an old issue of Ranger Rick. Another contained a section of a math worksheet, while another contained a piece of lint.
"Nobody meant to do it," Chao said. "It's just so fun to pull down the handle and have the button drop out all made. Some kids were making them just to hear the sound."
Orlowski said neither Chao nor any other student has been willing to "rat out" all of the conspirators. Even students known to have been involved are claiming to have been in the bathroom during the incident.
"From the number of improper buttons made—I've personally seen at least 50—this was not limited to the nine kids in detention," Orlowski said. "As far as I'm concerned, everyone wearing a button not related to the student-council elections is guilty. From the look of things, that's almost everyone."
Though the students clearly acted improperly, some Harrison staffers are blaming Orlowski, citing her willingness to let the students use school equipment unsupervised.
"I wasn't sure why Karen let those kids use the button maker in the first place—it's not even pep week. But at the time, I didn't think it was my place to say anything," school secretary Millie Barthes said. "Well, I'm just thankful the machine came back in one piece."
The button-making machine, a Badge-A-Minit I, is kept in the main-office supply closet and is available for classroom checkout from Barthes. The school purchased the machine 14 years ago for $79, a hefty sum that, according to Barthes, clearly indicates that the machine is not a toy. In May 1987, days after the school's acquisition of the button maker, Barthes made a sign that has remained taped to its base ever since: "For classroom use only! Do not waste materials! They cost $$!!"
According to school principal Dr. Richard Wagner, such incidents have unfortunately made it necessary to keep school equipment under lock and key. Wagner said that every piece of restricted equipment is the result of a specific incident of tomfoolery.
"We have to lock up the balls and playground equipment so they don't end up on the roof," Wagner said. "Kids have to go to the janitor to get bathroom supplies or we risk another Jeremy Sachs. He's also why we can no longer use the honor system for extra milk in the lunchroom. Then there's the photocopier. I'll never forget what happened with the photocopier."