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."