School shootings, creative writing & free speech

When public school students pen violent-themed creative writing, administrators are faced not only with the problem of addressing potentially troubled youth but also with a classic test of their commitment to First Amendment principles. The issue resonates with particular force in April, as it brings back memories of the shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech University.

April 20 marks the 10th anniversary of the infamous shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that left 13 people dead in addition to the two student-killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. April 16 marks the 2nd anniversary of the even deadlier shootings at Virginia Tech University, perpetrated by student Seuing Hui Cho, who killed 32 people before turning one of his guns on himself.

In both instances, the shooters had completed creative writing projects for school that reflected violent themes. In February 1999 — a mere two months before his murderous rampage — Klebold turned in an essay about a man with a duffel bag and weapons who killed a dozen “preps.” The ultimate, awful irony of course is that Klebold and Harris killed 12 other students and one teacher.

Klebold’s story caused his English teacher Judy Kelly to recoil in horror. In his recently released book Columbine, Dave Cullen noted that Kelly contacted Klebold’s parents to discuss the essay and also relayed her warnings to the student’s school counselor. Kelly described the story as “ghastly” and “the most vicious story I’ve ever read.”

In October 2005, Cho wrote a poem that alarmed his professor — acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni — and many of his classmates. It in part led to his banishment from the class and one-on-one tutoring with then-chair of the English Department Lucinda Roy. In her memoir about the tragedy, No Right to Remain Silent, Roy addressed the problem directly: “How do you evaluate a potential threat if the primary catalyst for the complaint is the student’s creative writing or artistic expression?”

Roy says that most of the time a student’s violent-themed writing is “not a prelude to actual violence.” She explains in her book that “the difficulty comes in trying to identify writing which may indicate that a student is a threat to him- or herself or others.”

The issue is profoundly difficult for school officials. In the cases of Klebold and Cho, student writing assignments did turn out to be warning signs that were only partially heeded. However, overreacting to any violent-themed student expression can lead to rank censorship and unfair punishments. In an essay for Entertainment Weekly,On Predicting Violence,” famed author Stephen King notes that some of his early school-aged writing “would have raised red flags.” He points out that for most creative writers, “the imagination serves as an excretory channel for violence: We visualize what we will never actually do.”

Unfortunately, some students have been unfairly punished for violent-themed work. In perhaps one of the more egregious cases, a Texas seventh-grader was jailed for six days in 1999 for writing a violent Halloween essay that earned him an “A” from his teacher.

First Amendment commentator Douglas Lee explains one unfortunate byproduct of school shootings — a reduction in students’ freedom of speech. “And, while few notice and even fewer care, students’ First Amendment rights become another victim of the crime,” he wrote in a 2007 column.

As I indicated in the First Report Student Expression in the Age of Columbine, school officials should consider each case on its own merits when confronting disturbing, violent student writing that some view as threatening. In each case, officials should evaluate “the student’s disciplinary history, relationship with fellow students and teachers, home life, the impact on the specific target of a perceived threat, if applicable, and the reasons the student communicated the violent sentiment if reasonably ascertainable,” says the report. School officials also should not ignore danger signs, particularly if the student’s past disciplinary history causes concern. Communication between teachers, administrators, parents and school counselors should be part of the equation.

However, this fact-based assessment must also avoid zero-tolerance judgments that punish students in a knee-jerk fashion. Silencing and punishing all student violent-themed material may, in some instances, be counterproductive and harmful. Federal appeals court Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote in a dissenting opinion in Lavine v. Blaine School District (9th Cir. 2002): “Allowing the school to punish a student for writing a poem about a school killer may foster school killings, by drying up information from students about their own and other students’ emotional troubles.”

The tragedies of Columbine and Virginia Tech do show that on occasion students’ writings can serve as warning signs for potentially disturbed and dangerous individuals. These warning signs should not be ignored, but school officials should not respond with zero-tolerance policies that sacrifice common sense and the First Amendment.

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