Vivid violence in student writing: Is it cause for concern in schools?

I am often struck by the violent tone and dark themes in teen writing. As a teacher reading an essay full of violent depictions and realistic descriptions of murder or suicide, I’d have a hard time distinguishing creative license from cries for help or potential threats.

A New York middle school faced that dilemma and ended up reporting the family of the student to child welfare. The school also suspended the student to get him out of the class and evaluate whether his essay was cause for concern. The parents said their son’s essay was protected speech and the suspension amounted to retaliation. They also contended that the principal’s call to child welfare violated their rights.

The U.S. Court of Appeals dismissed both those arguments, saying schools must be able to take action at times to evaluate whether violent writing represents a threat.

Here is a good summation from Education Week:

A federal appeals court has upheld the brief suspension of a middle school student who wrote a violent essay for a class assignment, saying that school administrators must have latitude to “distinguish empty boasts from serious threats.”

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, also unanimously upheld the dismissal of a civil rights claim over the school principal’s decision to report the boy’s parents to state child-welfare authorities. The principal believed the parents were not sufficiently concerned about the boy’s record of misbehavior at school and his emotional well-being.

The ruling came in the case of a student at Warwick Valley Middle School in Warwick, N.Y., who in 2007 wrote an essay about having only 24 hours to live that describes the student getting drunk, taking drugs, taking cyanide, and shooting himself in the head in front of his friends. The boy’s teacher shared the essay with the principal, who sequestered the student in in-school suspension for an afternoon while he evaluated whether the essay represented a threat, court papers say.

The principal concluded that the essay was not a threat and the boy was sent home without further discipline. But after a meeting with the boy’s parents, the principal reported them to the state Department of Child and Family Services out of a concern that they were not taking their son’s problems seriously. The state agency required the boy to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, but it later concluded the principal’s fears were unfounded.

The parents sued the principal and the school district. A federal district court dismissed both claims. In its Aug. 17 decision, the 2nd Circuit panel upheld the dismissal of the parents’ suit. “A school administrator must be able to react to ambiguous student speech by temporarily removing the student from potential danger (to himself and others) until it can be determined whether the speech represents a real threat to school safety and student learning,” the 2nd Circuit court said. “Without more, the temporary removal of a student from regular school activities in response to speech exhibiting violent, disruptive, lewd, or otherwise harmful ideations is not an adverse action for purposes of the First Amendment absent a clear showing of intent to chill speech or punish it.”

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

34 comments Add your comment

tim

August 18th, 2011
1:59 pm

“Creative LICENSE” Come on now……It must be a slow news day.

catlady

August 18th, 2011
2:02 pm

It is tough, but err on the side of caution, both in reporting it and in disciplining the student.

Dr NO

August 18th, 2011
2:02 pm

This childs writings and warped imagination are all due to the rampant violence shown on Bugs Bunny cartoons, video games, television, the music industry, drugs butt mostly his parents.

Maureen Downey

August 18th, 2011
2:09 pm

@Tim, Nope not a slow day but a topic that interests me a lot.
Maureen

Principal Skinner

August 18th, 2011
2:12 pm

“…..violence shown on Bugs Bunny cartoons….”

I heard he has an ACME catalogue

Good Mother

August 18th, 2011
2:18 pm

There is no mention here of a school counselor. If any student is suspected of being depressed or being a threat to oneself or others they shouldn’t be sequestered and ostracized, which can escalate the emotions of the student.

The school should have a school counselor to immediately protect the child by putting him or her in a safe, calm enviroment, which will also prevent harm to other students, then get a careful, psychiatric evaluation.

I lived in Littleton Colorardo where Eric Klebold gunned down students. Why weren’t there counselors in place ? Because the school likely used all the funds to hire basketball coaches posing as history teachers.

Our society, particularly our Southern society values football above all else.

Maureen Downey

August 18th, 2011
2:21 pm

And speaking of that, Atlanta had a similar case in 2006:

A former Fulton County student who was expelled from high school for writing about a dream in which a student shoots a math teacher has failed to convince a federal court that the school system violated her right to free speech. The family of Rachel Boim argued in a lawsuit that the school system violated her constitutional right to expression when she was disciplined after her art teacher seized a personal journal in class. Rachel was then a 14-year-old honors student at Roswell High.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Senior Judge Marvin Shoob dismissed the case, as well as a companion lawsuit in which her parents sought to recoup their legal fees. In his order, Shoob said the writings were “sufficiently disturbing” to support the school system’s disciplinary action. “Rachel’s story alone, when read in light of the recent history of school shootings, was sufficient to lead school officials reasonably to forecast substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities — specifically, that Rachel might attempt to shoot her math teacher, ” Shoob wrote.

An attorney representing Boim and her family said he was “deeply disappointed” in the decision and planned to appeal. After her October 2003 expulsion attracted national attention, the Fulton County school system dropped the most serious disciplinary charge — that Rachel had threatened bodily harm against school personnel — and reduced the punishment from expulsion for the school year to a 10-day suspension.

The student said she never meant any harm, and news about the incident attracted support for her from advocates of freedom of expression. At the school system’s discipline tribunal hearing, Georgia’s poet laureate, David Bottoms, was among those who testified on her behalf.

In Rachel’s story, a student dreams of shooting her sixth-period math teacher. Like the student in the story, Shoob noted, Rachel’s sixth-period class was math. His order included the text of Rachel’s complete story. An excerpt from the dream sequence reads:

“Yes, my math teacher. I lothe [sic] him with every bone in my body. Why? I dont [sic] know. This is it. I stand up and pull the gun from my pocket. BANG the force blows him back and every one in the class sits there in shock. BANG he falls to the floor. …”

Shoob found the system’s disciplining of the student did not violate her right to free expression because school officials “were justified in perceiving the story as a portent of possible future violence.” The judge said the officials could have reasonably assumed the school would be disrupted if other students read her notebook, which she brought to school. “While there is no evidence that Rachel ever directly showed the story to anyone else, it is undisputed that she brought the notebook containing the story to school and that she passed the notebook to another student before it was confiscated by a teacher, ” Shoob wrote.

“It was her own private thought, ” Bottoms said. “It’s indicative, I think, of the sort of atmosphere we’re creating, not only in schools, but in our country.”

As part of the lawsuit, the family sought just $1 in damages, but wanted to have her disciplinary record cleared.

quantivious's mama

August 18th, 2011
2:34 pm

err on the side of caution– the safety and well being of the instructors and other students are tantamount to…everything else. and, i remember that ‘06 case–it was scary.

Ole Guy

August 18th, 2011
3:03 pm

We’ve seen this at least a dozen times…should there really be a question as to what constitutes “protected” vs threatening speech?

I realize there are many who wish to dismiss “the old ways” of student control, resting on the belief, mis-guided as it may be, that freedom of speech should be ladeled out to any-and-all, regardless of intent or psychological maturity. As with the many issues discussed in this fine blog section, we have witnessed, over the years, nothing short of abject failure(s) in the face of an insistence upon passive education, passive control, and passive “follow-up” in determining effectiveness.

I realize these admonitions may tend to become a drone of “background noise” in the (supposed) search for “a better mouse trap”…a better means of producing generations capable of assuming viable and responsible roles in the 21st Century. While we discuss and analyze specific issues relative to the state of education, we (at least in my humble view) tend to ignore some (what I feel are most-certainly) over-riding issues. Just like in the flying game, one may have the best equipment, the best personnel, etc…but if the weather is below minimums, YOU DON’T FLY.

The “educational environment”, like the weather, has been “below minimums” for a long long time. We disect separate issues, morsel by morsel, without considering “the big picture”. That big picture, as I have always held, is the establishment AND adhearance to STANDARDS: standards of educational performance AND behavior. That behavior, as unpopular, and old fashioned as it may seem, includes speech.

If we stopped addressing these issues in “fireman” manner…waiting until the educational building is engulfed in flame…and concentrated, instead, on maintaining those standards, we just may see a little less of this brand of anti-social behavior.

Teacher, Too

August 18th, 2011
3:11 pm

I have told my students in middle school that they are PG and PG-13– school-appropriate material. This is not an R-rated class. I have also told them that if they choose to write about personal matters (such as intending to do harm to others or themselves), that I was morally and ethically bound to report those matters to the administration/counselors.

Some students are not able to articulate problems to an adult; rather they would prefer to write about their feelings/concerns.

Anon

August 18th, 2011
4:01 pm

I was pulled from school in 7th grade for writing an essay on suicide. About two hours after turning it in, I was pulled from another class, and sent the the VP of discipline. He was very nice and engaged me in small talk while we waited for my parents. It was a very strange meeting with a man we all feared. My parents met with the school counselor and then we all met.

I was forced to explain my essay and my feelings. It wasn’t a comfortable situation but my parents supported me through it. The school system psychologist arrived and spent about 30 minutes with my parents and we left.

My dad explained that I was going to be held out of school for a few days and I was going to speak with a doctor. I remember thinking about how careful he was being in this conversation. I saw a psychologist for about three months (and I missed a week of school).

I am 54. To this day, only the doctor, teacher and the people involved in that school meeting know about my essay. I would bet that my Mother is the only one still alive. When I graduated from High School, I wrote that teacher a thank you letter.

Kids need to be taken seriously. They may deny the intent of their writings but there is nothing wrong with protecting the school body as a whole and addressing the needs of a troubled child. A gun in the hands of a child is still deadly.

Once Again

August 18th, 2011
4:16 pm

This must be more of that all-important “socialization” that home schooled kids are missing out on.

Having a more personal involvement in who your child socializes with through home school group outings, etc. or being there during their socialization as most home schooled parents are is obviously MUCH worse than just exposing them to whomever the government schools allow to be in their class, etc.

Greg

August 18th, 2011
4:28 pm

Take all threats written and verbal threats seriously, otherwise, you kids will show up a school one day with a gun.

http://www.ajc.com/news/dekalb/dekalb-student-brings-loaded-1120597.html

To Anon From Good Mother

August 18th, 2011
4:40 pm

Anon, I am literally crying at the office. I am so touched by your comments. I am so deeply grateful that everyone rallied around you and supported you in the best possible way.

Thank you very much for sharing.
Good Mother

To Teacher Too from Good Mother

August 18th, 2011
4:45 pm

I hope teacher that while you said those things to your student you also told them how much your cared about them and if they ever had feelings of depression, suicide, hurt, that you would take them to the school counselor where they would be heard and comforted.

Please say you did.

Suicide at Work from Good Mother

August 18th, 2011
4:55 pm

Every day I walked up the stairs to work there was always this guy outside smoking a cigarette, alone. I thought it was odd. Usually smokers hung out together.

He was young. He fixed our computers. He came around to our desks and did this or that and never spoke except to say the most minimal things. He looked sad to me.

We had group gatherings at work and I invited him once or twice and he declined. After a while I didn’t see him any longer. Someone complained about his demeanor so his boss made him work in the basement, alone, in the cold.

Then one day we got this email. He had committed suicide. He had shot himself with a gun.

He was only twenty.

I remember the angst of twenty. I couldn’t believe he was gone. He never had a chance to see what life would turn out like. He was so depressed.

At the closed casket memorial his parents put up all his writings. He wrote a lot about his pain. He wrote poems and prose. I gathered he was upset over a break up with a girlfriend.

If somene had read those papers and cared, perhaps he would have seen a psychiatrist. I would have taken him there. I cared. I think I recognized the depression. That’s why I invited him along to be part of the group with us. I wanted him to feel better.

So if anyone finds some letters about a dream, anything, I would recommend they see it as a cry for help. Protect these kids, help them. Life is hard when you’re young. You haven’t lived long enough to see that things that will break your heart in high school will pass and life gets better.

Thanks for listening.

Good Mother.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Augusta

August 18th, 2011
5:13 pm

Am not nearly so concerned about violence in student writings as I am about violence in student actions.

Retired teacher

August 18th, 2011
5:37 pm

Counselors have very little time to deal with students. At the HS level, it is testing and getting college application materials together. Not all MS and EL have counselors.

I have a relative that is a EL counselor. She was so excited 4 years ago to think about helping children. Just a few weeks ago, she said she hardly had time to see students because of all the testing and NCLB documentation. Maybe attend a few IEPs, meet a few parents. A group session per week is about all she has time for. Sad–but too true for many schools.

The schools have taken on ‘most every aspect of raising students. There is not time, money, or resources to accomplish what parents should be doing at home for their children.

400 Lb Gorilla

August 18th, 2011
5:42 pm

Schools on lock-down, middle schoolers bring guns to school…can we just start this year over?

This is a direct reflection of broken families with no one around to teach morals and values to the little thugs.

One day soon, we will be reading about one of these monsters killing someone at school. I hope it’s not my child.

MA

August 18th, 2011
5:51 pm

Retired teacher: I’m so glad you think that HS counselors only have time for testing and getting college application materials together. Maybe helping with the testing, but, when my two children were in high school and went to ask the counselor for help with college things; applications, scholarships, etc. they were told they could find the information online at College411 and other sites. Not much help in my opinion!!!!!!!!!!

Lee

August 18th, 2011
6:18 pm

One can only imagine what would happen if Stephen King were in school today….

Elizabeth

August 18th, 2011
6:18 pm

It is cause for alarm. Today students have no concept of the barriers of society. They think they are equal to adults and can say, do, and write whatever they please and receive no sanctions. They think, as do their parents, that such writing is apropriate in a school setting. It is not. If you publish ( i.e., write this for someone else to read) be prepared for the fallout.

dougmo2

August 18th, 2011
6:41 pm

Maureen@ 2:21

You only got half the story. The teacher in question took the journal home after school and then read it. Only then did the school system suspend the student. The teacher had no right reading it at home.

Counselor

August 18th, 2011
6:59 pm

I am a High School Counselor and take a bit of offense to both of the comments above about HS Counselors. Not only do I have time for my students on a personal level, I also take the time with every student or parent that needs/wants help through the college application process. Not only do I spend hours with students every day, I also make do scheduling, write recommendation letters, help wtih testing, attend meetings, etc. Teachers are the first line of defense in identifying students that may need help; they notify us daily of students they have concerns about, and we MUST take them seriuosly for the protection of every student in the school. Typically when a student writes about suicide, or other dark thoughts/feelings, there is some legitimate place they are coming from. If we ignored them, we wouldn’t be doing the job we are ethically and legally bound to do. Not to mention, most teachers and counselors just plain CARE about kids and want to make sure they are ok. I love what I do and am so thankful to be there for my students if they ever need me. Encourage your kids to reach out to a teacher or counselor if they can’t talk to you about something; better they talk to a trusted adult than nobody!

catlady

August 18th, 2011
7:49 pm

dougmo–so teachers aren’t allowed to take work home to do in the evening? Or did I misunderstand you?

Natalie

August 18th, 2011
9:05 pm

What if the student wrote this essay at home on his own blog, but the school became aware of it? Would that change the court’s ruling? This is an interesting area of the law – student free speech rights when it comes to off campus speech – as the courts across the country are divided on the issue. It won’t be long before one of the cases makes its way to the Supreme Court. For more about this issue, check out: http://www.internetsafetyproject.org/blog/will-the-us-supreme-court-rule-on-student-free-speech-on-the-internet

Shannon, M.Div.

August 18th, 2011
11:08 pm

It’s interesting that “those who give up liberty for security deserve neither” gets thrown out the window for teenagers.

gradgrind

August 19th, 2011
3:00 am

Some students use their writing to try and get a reaction out of the teacher. Very few are seriously disturbed. Those who are require special handling, but not because of their writing.

As a teaching writer myself, I absolutely oppose censorship. Discretion and taste are matters to discuss and cultivate with students, but trying to legislate morality preemptively is a fool’s game. It is indeed appropriate, on occasion, for writers to use vulgarity and profanity for technical/artistic reasons, such as developing a realistic character whose dirty mouth is part of the scene he inhabits or embodies. Of course I am not talking here about more narrow cases of religious schooling or of teaching younger children to write. I am talking about college students and, to some extent, high schoolers and adults. Some people will disagree with my stance, but there it is.

What I find immoral is a teacher taking the easy way out by declaring certain words “bad” or “off-limits” and/or trying to impose one’s own moral or religious views on students who don’t share that teacher’s articles of faith. By short-circuiting the thought process, all this approach teaches students is that they have three choices: follow authority figures blindly for a Pavlovian reward; say nothing that might ever possibly offend anyone, which means say nothing; or obliterate the obstacle (teacher, school, system, society, political party, etc.) thwarting you.

We love to talk about STEM in this country, even as we gut arts education funding. Good humanities education is a matter of life and death. I don’t believe that, say, Adolf Hitler would have been a good person if only he had better painting teachers, or that a writing workshop would have turned the Columbine or Virginia Tech shooters into models of mental health. In fact, the creative writing faculty at Virginia Tech were first to inform university officials of that student’s problems, which showed up not only on the pages he turned in, but also in his bizarre behavior during class. What arts and letters do for all of us is teach us how to make sense of the world we all share. For those students on the edge on sanity, writing far more often than not helps them get a grip.

In art, exceptions are the rule, and sharp kids will immediately offer that claim as justification for whatever they think is “creative” or “radical.” I tell them that you have to know the rules before you earn the right to break them, and redirect them to a particular technique or two that will help them write more effectively without the mad-killer fantasies or the gutter-mouth bravado.

Beginning writers of all ages try out various techniques, voices, speech patterns, etc. Younger writers are especially prone to cursing for emphasis and tend to draw on two or three predictable plot lines: someone dying; falling in love; and outright escapism that sublimates their own psychology. Adolescents understand extreme feelings and have not really learned how to construct characters or plot, so they gravitate towards what they feel are their own most “dramatic” emotions and use it for creative material. The easiest route is shock value. As new writers quickly discover, that only takes a piece so far.

Some students are rude, or clueless, or depressed, or dangerous. Teaching them to evade, deny, be silent about their lives seems to me to be a recipe for creating even more alienated sociopaths, some of whom are already so damaged that they can only express themselves through violence. One might argue that, by teaching students not to use certain words or graphic/violent depictions, a teacher could push a genuinely disturbed student over the edge.

Too many decisions about teaching seem to come from fear, not strength–the idea of CYA and avoiding legal liability. Get to know your students. If they have issues, you won’t need to look at their writing to tell if something’s wrong. Listen, be discreet, be kind, and be firm-do NOT play shrink or parent–and refer, refer, refer to support staff who ARE trained to recognize the symptoms of mental illness.

Kathy II

August 19th, 2011
7:43 am

First and foremost do the mechanics of the paper show a mastery of sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and is the vocabulary grade level or higher.
Why not focus on the assignment rather than analyzing it? If the content is so disturbing, why not direct the budding writer in a direction in which he or she understands that the animal kingdom, which can be very cruel, is NOT just human. Maybe expose young writers to MORE Greek or Roman mythology…the Bible also includes some pretty grusome and harsh conditions…Christ’s manner of death for one….the plagues of Egypt, David sending a soldier out to war to sleep with his wife….

Inman Park Boy

August 19th, 2011
11:07 am

You know, the makers of these violent video games scream to the high heavens when anyone suggests that their games may be contributing to teen violence; movie makers say the same thing, as do television networks. When the Columbine killers mimicked characters in a movie, the producers rushed to cover their artistic you know whats. IT AIN’T OUR FAULT!! The First Amendment has been stretched and pulled until it covers almost any kind of bizarre behavior, no matter what the cost to the culture or the body politic may be. And then editorial writers tut tut about “violent kids.” So….just what did you expect?

Kathy II

August 19th, 2011
1:45 pm

Perhaps it’s time to “RE-Introduce” a concept that is dying….. Norms. It may not be against the law to say something, but there may be a place and time to say it…Perhaps this is a good time to mention that “soft skills” blog….Maureen wrote about.

Disgusted

August 19th, 2011
3:07 pm

Yes, unfortunately the faculty at Virginia Tech could only do so much about Cho. His writings were bizarre as well as his behavior but it did not start at VA Tech. As far back as middle school age his teachers and counselors had noted his oddities. If not for the “Privacy Laws” and unwillingness to deal with him he was passed on without so much a mention, even during the application for college. The family culture was such that mental illness was never discussed. A combination of things that turned lethal. I believe that sometimes writings can be mirrors of our souls and a consistent pattern of writings that may show a problem should definitely be explored.

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Archie@Arkham Asylum

August 21st, 2011
7:54 pm

If I remember right, the school counselor’s job description depends a lot on the principal running the school and I have seen school counselors over the years relegated to being administrative paper-shufflers. Of course it might be fair to say that a lot of those counselors allowed that to happen but the average school isn’t exactly a democracy! At the rate things are going, schools are probably going to need 1-2 full-time social workers assigned to each campus. Just what government schools need, more welfare state governmental functions!