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.
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