Friday, April 27, 2007

'Disturbing' essay gets student arrested

Chicago Sun-Times, April 26 2007

High school senior Allen Lee sat down with his creative writing class on Monday and penned an essay that so disturbed his teacher, school administrators and police that he was charged with disorderly conduct.

"I understand what happened recently at Virginia Tech," said the teen's father, Albert Lee, referring to last week's massacre of 32 students by gunman Seung-Hui Cho. "I understand the situation."
But he added: "I don't see how somebody can get charged by writing in their homework. The teacher asked them to express themselves, and he followed instructions."

Allen Lee, an 18-year-old straight-A student at Cary-Grove High School, was arrested Tuesday near his home and charged with disorderly conduct for an essay police described as violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location.

The youth's father said his son was not suspended or expelled but was forced to attend classes elsewhere for now.

Today, Cary-Grove students rallied behind the arrested teen by organizing a petition drive to let him back in their school. They posted on walls quotes from the English teacher in which she had encouraged students to express their emotions through writing.

"I'm not going to lie. I signed the petition," said senior James Gitzinger. "But I can understand where the administration is coming from. I think I would react the same way if I was a teacher."

Cary Police Chief Ron Delelio said the charge was appropriate even though the essay was not published or posted for public viewing.

Disorderly conduct, which carries a penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine, is filed for pranks such as pulling a fire alarm or dialing 911. But it can also apply when someone's writings can disturb an individual, Delelio said.

"The teacher was alarmed and disturbed by the content," he said.

But a civil rights advocate said the teacher's reaction to an essay shouldn't make it a crime.

"One of the elements is that some sort of disorder or disruption is created," said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "When something is done in private—when a paper is handed in to a teacher—there isn't a disruption."

The "key outcomes" this month for the Creative English class was for students to identify and utilize poetic conventions to communicate ideas and emotions. With that in mind, teachers reminded students that if they read something that posed a threat to self or others, the school could take action, said High School District 155 Supt. Jill Hawk.

The English teacher read the essay and reported it to a supervisor and the principal. A round-table discussion with district officials conveyed, with lively debate, and they decided to report it to the police.

"Our staff is very familiar with adolescent behavior. We're very well versed with types of creativity put into writing. We know the standards of adolescent behavior that are acceptable and that there is a range," Hawk said.

"There can certainly be writing that conveys concern for us even though it does not name names location or date," he said.

The charge against Lee comes as schools across the country wrestle with how to react in the wake of the shootings at the Virginia Tech campus at Blacksburg, Va.

Bomb threats at high schools in Schaumburg and Country Club Hills have caused evacuations, and extra police were on duty at a Palos Hills high school this week because of a threatening note found in the bathroom of a McDonald's restaurant a half-mile away.

Experts say the charge against Lee is troubling because it was over an essay that even police say contained no direct threats against anyone at the school. However, Virginia Tech's actions toward Cho came under heavy scrutiny after the killings because of the "disturbing" plays and essays teachers say he had written for classes.

Simmie Baer, an attorney with the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University, called the Cary incident an example of zero-tolerance policies gone awry. Children, she said, are not as sophisticated as adults and often show emotion through writing or pictures, which is what teachers should want because it is a safe outlet.

So this is the reaction we have, when a student actually expresses themselves in a creative writing assignment; the teacher found it disturbing and had the guy arrested. There were no threats, no specifications, no reason to be scared of this Honors student, who had obviously taken pains to ensure that his essay would not be perceived as threatening. He didn't post it online or cause panic or hysteria. He expressed his honest feelings in a creative fashion as requested by his teacher... and he's charged with Disorderly Conduct.

Why can't they just TALK to him?! Do the people running these establishments REALIZE that this kind of treatment will only push potentially dangerous people FURTHER into their corners?! Can't we take the opportunity to discuss and understand and negotiate and debate and connect with other people instead of this knee-jerk reaction to what the establishment finds 'disturbing'? How much of a leap is this, really, to criminalizing dissenting thought?

There are, of course, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre, those who think we could have done something to prevent it; that we should have heeded the warning signs in Cho's writings, and that this sort of reaction is acting upon lessons learned. But the truth is that, if we do truly want to live in a free society, where you can hold your own beliefs and express them to others without fear, then there's nothing we COULD have done. Cho (and our victim Allen Lee) was free to think and say what they wanted because we should ALL be free to say and think what we want; as long as Cho didn't act on his writings there weren't any problems. Likewise, the ACLU and the Supreme Court uphold the rights of hate groups to despise and detest whatever minorities they do, so long as they don't form lynch mobs, just like they uphold the rights of pro-life advocates to picket abortion clinics, anti-war protestors to march on Washington, and Ann Coulter's right to rant about the 'godless church of liberalism.'

You probably don't agree with some of these opinions, and I'm willing to bet they don't agree with some of yours. But that's why we humans have the amazing ability to discourse, to discuss and understand and negotiate and debate and connect with other people. We, as rational beings, can decide what points of view are the most valid based on empirical evidence and consensus of experience. We have the power to show that other people are wrong, and how, instead of instantly asserting that their points of view are wrong and judging based on that. Making a credible case for your position is a far stronger standpoint for making legal, ethical and moral judgments than trusting a potentially untrustworthy authority to have the answers for you.

The Ancient Greeks and their heirs of the Renaissance and Enlightenment saw this and it led to tremendous explosions in science, philosophy, politics and every other field. In every scenario dogmatism, intolerance and suppression of dissent has led to social disaster. Asserting, axiomatically, that a certain point of view is right (or wrong) and beyond debate is a catastrophically dangerous position to take because it is based entirely on the whims of the people asserting that axiom, and God forbid you disagree with them.

I'm getting off on a tangent here but I want to point out that much of this mentality falls under the category of Authoritarianism, that is, strict and unflinching obedience to a higher power based solely upon their position of authority. We see it everywhere, both historically and contemporarily, in the dregs of human history: during the Inquisition, during the Holocaust, in the Milgram Experiments, in the ranks of Al-Qaeda, in Westboro Baptist Church and creeping into our schools. This is the greater issue at work here, in all levels of the government and among all classes and heritages of people.

We have to remain critical and skeptical, and as a human being if you value your own freedom you MUST empathize with others and value theirs. Take issue principally not with what they believe, but why they believe it. Let's try to understand those who disagree with us, instead of condemning them. One of our greatest gifts is the rational mind; let's USE IT.

I would highly recommend Dr. Robert Altemeyer's book The Authoritarians for an objective, empirical summary of some thirty years of research into the authoritarian personality and its ramifications for today's politics. If you want to know what happens to the rest of us when people like James Gitzinger (see above) start exchanging essential liberties for temporary safety, push the button. It's free.

Follow-up 4/27/07: Here's the original essay by the student. Not exactly proofread, or very readable, or making any sense at all, but that's typical for stream-of-consciousness exercises. He adds some of his own comments about the content.
"On an additional note, I have completed the MEPS (Military Entry Processing Station) examinations, and yes a psychiatric evaluation is included in the process. If I'm qualified to defend the country, I believe I'm qualified to attend school."

Follow-up 5/23/07: Charges against the student have been dropped. School officials still insist they did the right thing, claiming "The arrest and charges were clearly warranted by the Cary Police Department," and "The police were obligated in the circumstances to do whatever legally possible they could to ensure the safety of Mr. Lee, the students, and the school."

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

High School Student Suspended after Gun Doodle

Associated Press, April 24 2007

It was a crude animation of one stick figure shooting another created for a school graphics class in Gloucester County last week.

But during the same week of a shooting massacre at Virginia Tech, officials at Williamstown High School in Monroe found nothing innocent about the sketch. As a result, the student says a vice principal told him he would not be allowed to attend classes again until he passes a mental-health evaluation.

In response, the 18-year-old, identified in court papers only as "J.K.," filed a lawsuit yesterday asking a federal judge to order school officials to allow him back to class and to pay for damages.

During a graphics design class on April 16 - hours before the world knew that Seung-Hui Cho had killed 32 people at Virginia Tech - J.K. said he was asked to make animations for a program they were learning.

J.K.'s sketch consisted of two stick figures, one with a raised gun that had dashes leading from it to the head of the other one.

The next morning, he said, he showed the drawing to a teacher, but told her he was not done with it. In court papers, he said he planned to show the victim deflecting or destroying the bullet. But, he said, the teacher did not listen to him further.

Two days later, he said, Vice Principal Paul Deal told him that he was not being suspended or expelled, but that he might be a threat to the school or himself. J.K. said he was told to leave and not return until being cleared by a mental-health professional.

Monroe Schools Superintendent Robert E. Terrill said that "the administration at the high school felt it was necessary to remove" the student until a threat assessment was conducted by a school psychologist as a precaution.

Terrill said that he had not seen the drawing, but that school officials described it as a stick figure shooting another figure in the head. There were no names or labels, he said.

Terrill said that the school's action was unrelated to last week's massacre at Virginia Tech, but that the "incident heightened everybody's awareness."

"On occasion, we have students that might do something like this where we might have a question as to what the youngster's intentions are," Terrill said.

Although J.K. has attention deficit disorder, according to court papers he was an honor student, a flight commander in his school's Air Force Junior ROTC program and took some courses at Gloucester County College.

According to his report card, he earned five A's and a B last quarter. One of those A's was in his graphic design class.

Whatever happened to creativity? Whatever happened to independence? Whatever happened to appropriate judgment? Why is everyone being held under suspicion? Has our Culture of Fear really driven us to this point?
Kids have fantasies of violence--we all do. People think bloodthirsty thoughts (and I'm sure a qualified psychologist could tell you why) but the overwhelming majority of people don't act on them! Creative outlets for aggression are therapeutic--violent crime in the United States is at a tremendous low. As Hollywood gore have gotten more sophisticated and first-person shooters have proliferated in the home, our country hasn't become an anarchic death orgy--it's safer than ever before. What are we all afraid of?

Source: US Department of Justice

Individuals have rights, even students; at 18 this student was a legal adult. Let's exercise some voting power together and put some sense back into the government.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Hysteria after student notes disliked classmates

Sun-Sentinal, April 19 2007

BOCA RATON -- Spanish River High School phones were clogged on Thursday with calls from parents concerned about security after a male student on Wednesday pointed out people in the yearbook he liked and didn't like.

The 18-year-old student was removed from school Wednesday and will not return, said principal Constance Tuman-Rugg.

In a nation shaken to the core by a gunman at Virginia Tech who took the lives of 32 people and then himself, add Hitler's birthday and the anniversary of the Columbine High School killings on Friday.

"In the four years I've been at a high school, this happens on April 20," said Tuman-Rugg. "It's not just this year or this boy. Watching the images on TV, I do understand the parents' concerns, but we have to encourage people to separate fact from exaggeration and not panic."

Rumors continue to fly today, but nothing more than the comments about the yearbook could be documented first-hand, the principal said.

School police searched the home of the student, who is a senior, with the cooperation of this mother. Police found no evidence of danger at the home, the principal said.

"Nothing was found, no letters, no lists, nothing," Tuman-Rugg said.

Parent Crystal Palmquist of Boca Raton said her two sons begged her not to attend school on today because they fear for their safety. She said Allan, 16, and Harrison, 15, both ninth-graders, believe a threat against students is real.

They told their mother they're sure that one classmate has a list of targeted student victims.

"You can't take these things lightly," said Palmquist, who decided to keep her children home. She wants more assurances from the school that there is no danger to the students.

Extra school police are on duty at Spanish River today and tomorrow, the principal said. She made announcements at school and sent a recorded phone message to parents last night to assure families of the security of the campus.

Of the school's 2,200 students, 132 were absent today, within the usual range of 130-150, the principal said.

"We're all very upset about what happened at Virginia Tech, but I'm not a mom who gets overly alarmed," said Suzy Chevrier, who has two daughters who attend Spanish River. "Every time there's a shooting or a bomb scare there are copycat threats, and there's danger in not paying attention. But I don't think it's good to overreact."

I don't think there's much I can say here. This is probably the most extreme example of kneejerk panic that I've ever seen. That, or the kids (15 and 16, and freshmen?) saw an easy way to skip a few days from school and their gullible parents let them.

I hope the senior gets to walk at graduation with his classmates.

Friday, April 13, 2007

School pulls approved book after one complaint

San Francisco Chronicle, April 12 2007

Citing his concern for "the morals of our society," Burlingame schools Superintendent Sonny Da Marto has stopped four eighth-grade classes from reading "Kaffir Boy," an award-winning memoir of growing up in a South African ghetto during apartheid.

Da Marto had banned the book from the Burlingame Intermediate School late last month when the 13- and 14-year-old students were nearly halfway through it, said their English teacher, Amelia Ramos, who was required to take the books back from 116 students...

..."Kaffir Boy has been taught in eighth grade and in many high schools across the United States," Ramos said. "I wanted to challenge and motivate my students, to broaden their perspectives on life beyond the borders of Burlingame."

That strategy worked last year, when Ramos freely taught the memoir after it was approved by the Burlingame School District's "core literature committee" of parents, teachers, a librarian, a student and a school board member.

But in late March, Ramos received an e-mail from a parent complaining about the graphic scene.

On Page 72, readers find a description of child prostitution witnessed by Mathabane when he was younger than Ramos' students...

...Board member Liz Gindraux, who also sat on the core literature committee that approved "Kaffir Boy," said the process had been "disrespected."

"Two parents object, and the book is pulled without any discussion," she said. "I feel we jumped the gun a little."

Board Vice President Michael Barber said, "I don't want to be the censor board."

Parent Kerbey Altmann said the banning decision had "echoes of a police state."

"I feel my right as a parent was usurped unceremoniously and quickly. There was not full disclosure," he said.

His son, eighth-grader Tom Altmann, asked the board how "shielding us from the scene in the book will benefit us."

No one spoke in favor of the ban.

Mathabane has been dealing with objections to Page 72 for years. In 1999, he wrote an essay that appeared in the Washington Post, titled, "If You Assign My Book, Don't Censor It..."

...Mathabane writes that he was shunned by the boys for running away. He concludes that "resisting peer pressure is one of the toughest things for young people to do.

"That is the lesson of the prostitution scene. It's a lesson that seems to be lost on the people who want to censor my book."

One concerned parent and one overzealous administrator have negated the efforts of a board of genuine educators and intercepted the genuine, authentic lessons this book was to teach. "Kaffir Boy" had gone through the school board's approval process and had been taught in the past, in its entirety. The correct response to the student's parent should have been a brief explanation of the book's, and the passage's, value to the student and its purpose. Although the parent reserves the right to decide what their child should be reading, yanking a half-finished book out of the hands of over a hundred students is irresponsible.

The very purpose of Page 72 is to disturb readers; I as a parent or a teacher would be more concerned if the student wasn't disturbed. The book is not pornographic, it is an authentic first-hand account of a very real and regrettable part of human history. If future generations don't understand why and how the ugly parts of history have occurred, then they will likely be doomed to repeat it.

Thankfully most parties involved recognize the value in the book, and if more parents raise children like the Altmanns we should be headed towards a more enlightened society.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Honor Student Wrongly Punished For Bomb Threat

CBS, April 4 2007

A teenager in Westmoreland County who spent 12 days in a juvenile detention facility when he was wrongly accused of making a bomb threat says he doesn't want to go back to the school and he wants an apology from administrators.

Police arrested Hempfield Area High School sophomore Cody Webb, 15, last month after school administrators claimed he called in the threat 3:17am on March 12th.

But officials now concede that the call didn't come from Webb and the misunderstanding stemmed from Daylight Saving Time.

Webb, an honor student who never even had a detention, admits that he called the school's hotline that morning – an hour earlier.

The district, however, never changes its clocks – and insisted that Webb made the threat.

After his attorney finally convinced the school what really happened, Webb was finally released and all charges were dropped.

Now the school wants Webb to come back to class, but the teen says he was humiliated by the principal and doesn't want to return to the district.

He and his family are considering their next course of action.

The school's conclusion must have seemed accurate; a time stamp and a bomb threat. But would it have killed them to actually listen to the Honor student's explanation and do some investigation first? They locked the teen up in prison for twelve days before his attorney could talk some sense into them. Given the student's track record, the school should have given him the benefit of the doubt and looked into his claims instead of throwing the book at him and ending up with this mess.
Schools have historically defended their positions with the legal notion of In loco parentis, that is, that the school is taking the place of the parent while the child is in their custody and therefore the school has absolute legal right to decide how to treat its students. School officials are granted the autonomy of a governmental institution and have absolute control over their students; potential for abuse is rife.
Perhaps there should exist a resource for the students to keep the school's authority in check, and defend the students against unreasonable and (anywhere else) illegal violations of civil rights. I have had a handful of amazing and subversive teachers that could be counted on to stand up for their students, who began with the presumption of innocence and had enough common sense to plead a student's case for them. Currently such defense only seems to fall to the family attorney after the fact.
Even kids who have taken Honors-level Civics classes are too inexperienced and too naive to present a credible case, and in any case, they have already been accused, condemned and punished before any response can be made. An inordinate amount of control one institution has over its subjects is always subject to abuse.

Thankfully, the legal system still works in the Real World and these victims can be compensated. But their rights never should have been violated to begin with, and not every family can afford to make the commitment Cody Webb's parents made for their son.