The last week of August caught a firestorm in the Grand Island, Nebraska Public Schools system as administrators scrambled to recover from banning a three-year-old Deaf child named Hunter Spanjer from using his sign name because his fingers “looked too much like a gun” — and any sort of suggestion of a gun, even as a sign name, is verboten.

The storm of outrage that blasted the GIPS from the rest of the nation made the school system quickly back down from their prejudicial practice.  Here is their official recantation:

Grand Island Public Schools has not changed the sign language name of any student, nor is it requiring any student to change how his or her name is signed. The school district teaches American Sign Language (“ASL”) for students with hearing impairments. ASL is recommended by the Nebraska Department of Education and is widely used in the United States. The sign language techniques taught in the school district are consistent with the standards of the Nebraska Department of Education and ASL.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits the school district from disclosing personally identifiable information concerning any student without the prior written consent of the student’s parent.  Therefore, the school district cannot discuss any particular student or identify any particular student.

Grand Island Public Schools is not requiring any current student with a hearing impairment to change his or her sign language name. Our mission remains: Every Student, Every Day, a Success!

Even though the situation was quickly and peaceably resolved for Hunter, the chilling aftereffects are still worth discussing in what has truly become our Panopticonic, Carceral Nation:  We are not only afraid of our own shadows, and the gun lobby, we are  now terrified by a Deaf child’s sign name.  We live in silly and desperate times.

Let’s put Hunter’s sign name in a bit of historical — not hysterical — perspective.  The actual ASL sign for “hunting” is an “H” HandShape on both hands that is then flipped up and down a couple of times at both wrists — that is also the “sign name” for Hunter College, another school on the ever-wide CUNY campus system.  The fact that Hunter twists his middle finger over his index finger to create an “R” HandShape to represent “HunteR” is just how you make a good and memorable sign name… but not necessarily suggesting a pretend gun.

For an actual gun, take that “R” HandShape on one hand and add an extended thumb twitching forward — to suggest a hammer on a firing gun — and now you have the official sign name of former President Ronald Reagan given to him in common use by the Deaf community.  Sure, that Reagan sign name is tasteless and iconic and it is also “The Deaf Way” because it is culturally blunt and brutally factual.

President Bill Clinton’s sign name was a “C” on one hand curving around an upright, extended index finger on the other hand indicating the sign for “Affair.”  Brutal.  Tasteless.  Iconic.  Factual.

President Barack Obama’s sign name is an “O” that becomes a “B” in space on the same hand — suggesting the rising sun of his iconic logo.  Not tasteless.  Not brutal.  Iconic.  Factual.

School systems need to know not just history, but the history of a specific minority culture before they go making threats against innocent children born into a disabled minority.  That sort of GIPS public indifference and immoral conjugation of a factually flawed policy leads to mocking in the public square and a quick and brutal and rapid human correction — an eternal rebuke that serves to remind us all to be ever mindful and never punitive as we try to create a safe environment in which we can all peaceably exist together.


  1. Haven’t I seen on your résumé that you know ASL? I’m particularly interested in your take on this subject. I was hoping to hear what you thought.
    The fanatical stance schools will take on the most minute points has astounded me for the last 20 years. This is the latest example of rules overuling common sense.
    I’m glad it was resolved peaceably (sort of). When I heard they were literally going to make a child CHANGE HIS NAME I was astounded. I equated the act with making a tree be purple. It can’t be done!

    1. Yes, I teach ASL in person at CUNY and online at — it is fascinating how the “safe” issues, like fake finger guns, can create such an outrage while actual guns in school don’t seem to create much outcry!

      A sign name is a pretty sacred thing in the Deaf Community. It’s really tasteless to mess with one.

  2. When I saw the news about this I thought, I can’t wait to see David’s take on this — glad you wrote this great document of the history of the name! Thanks!

    1. Yes, the history of “Hunter” as a sign and as a gun and as a college name, etc. is really important to help frame the matter in terms we can all understand. A hunter has many meanings, just as a crossed-finger “R” HandShape has many meanings, too — not all of them a “gun” … sometimes it’s just the name of a three-year-old boy!

  3. It’s good you gave the history of some of the more famous sign names. Context helps to understand how these names are given and used. Oftentimes you don’t even pick your own name. The Community decides and it’s always physical and visual and easily identifiable, so if you have a big facial scar or a large nose, you better watch out!

        1. sheesh (hides face in hands) I’d seen her post, and seen you write about her, but hadn’t made the name association. Glad to meet you, Janna!

          1. I’m sure you recognized her, Lillian, though she doesn’t post comments near often enough! I just wanted to make it clear and transparent in case others were reading this thread for the first time and might know know my relationship to Janna.

    1. That’s a good point about the community deciding. I remember telling the history of Reagan’s sign name to a Hearing person one time and being told, outright, that the sign name was disrespectful and that I should change it. I tried to explain it wasn’t my decision, I didn’t make up the name and, in context, the name is absolutely right because there’s no doubt with “R” president you’re talking about when it comes to getting “shot” making the name.

      1. I have learned a little about ASL users over the years, and I have gleaned that it DEFINITELY is a ‘separate’ community. I once knew an ASL teacher personally and was hoping to glean some information from her, but that didn’t come to be.
        Spanish, Hebrew, and ASL are the three languages that I have wanted to learn over the course of my lifetime. But, as with anything, one has to STUDY 🙂

        1. Study is everything, Lillian! Total immersion is paramount, too. Our students who meet three times a week in person tend to do a lot better over time than those we meet only once a week.

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