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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Frightening Fiction: New Vigilance on Student Writing Can Yield Clues to Mental Health

Teachers become sentinels as student writing is scrutinized for threats of violence.
By Eric D. Randall

When to Worry:

The content does not reflect the literary purpose of the assignment. Violent threats are specific and excessive. The student also suffers from depression, eating disorders, unhappiness, or bullying.

Credit: Alicia Buelow

Shortly after the Columbine High School shooting, in April 1999, an eighth grader in Fairfax, Virginia, named Seung-Hui Cho wrote what investigators would later call "a disturbing paper" for English class. In it, the future Virginia Tech shooter threatened both suicide and homicide and stated that "he wanted to repeat Columbine," according to a report by a panel appointed by Virginia governor Tim Kaine. Cho continued to hand in disturbing writing assignments in college -- and later killed thirty-two people, including himself, in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Cho's influence is being felt in classrooms across the nation, particularly among English teachers. Because Cho and some other school shooters may have foreshadowed their rampages in creative writing assignments, English teachers in many schools are being asked to fulfill a new, often uncomfortable role: campus sentinel. Teachers are now reviewing student essays, poems, and short stories not just for spelling, grammar, and organization but also for emotional content that might have implications for the safety of the student or the school.

"We expect our teachers to report things they see, hear, or read," says John Sawchuk, principal of Columbia High School, in East Greenbush, New York. In February 2004, he tackled a sixteen-year-old school shooter and wrested a 12-gauge shotgun from him, but not before the student, Jon Romano, fired a shot that struck a teacher in the leg. No students were hurt, but eighty-two victims were named in an indictment. "What we learned is that we don't take any chances," Sawchuk says. "We have to do what we can to prevent these things from happening."

Teachers say content that could be viewed as troubling arises frequently in student writing. In poems, plays, and other creative writing assignments submitted to teachers for grading, students have written about everything from self-mutilation to mass murder. Depressive and suicidal themes are common, educators also report.

"You can’t pretend it's all fiction," says Carol Jago, who directs the California Reading and Literature Project, at the University of California at Los Angeles, and has taught English at Santa Monica High School, in Santa Monica, California, for thirty-two years. "At the college level, you can say, 'This is art.' I can't do that. I'm teaching children."

The new vigilance is affecting how people teach, says Jago, who is also vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She adds that teachers are shying away from open-ended creative writing assignments and are less likely to have students keep journals, which have also fallen out of favor for pedagogical reasons. "I tell my students, 'You are writing in a school setting, and your teacher is an old lady.' We need to help students learn to write for an audience."

When she comes across something disturbing, Jago prefers to talk directly to the student or possibly a parent, but that's not always possible. For instance, if a teacher obtains information that indicates a student may have been a victim of sexual abuse, state law may consider the teacher a "mandated reporter" who must formally report the allegation.

It's routine in the post-Columbine era for school administrators to ask all teachers and staff to report anything that could affect school safety, but English teachers find they are privy to students' psyches in ways that other educators are not. "English is the place where they let it all out," says Anne Kuthy, head of the English department at Shaker High School, in Latham, New York. At Shaker, teachers are asked to bring concerns to a guidance counselor. In other schools, the principal is supposed to be informed.

In all cases, teachers find they must make judgment calls about what to report. How can a teacher distinguish a piece written by a potential school shooter or suicide victim from a creative work that simply gives voice to teenage angst? Experts say teachers can't, and they shouldn't try.

"I would not ask teachers to make a judgment that even trained psychologists find difficult to make," says Dewey Cornell, a forensic psychologist at the University of Virginia and coauthor of the book Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence. "It's not surprising that many boys write about violence, because they spend a lot of time with entertainment media that depicts violence. Many kids who are not dangerous write violent fantasies, so that's not a good indicator."

What should be considered a red flag? One question teachers should ask themselves is, "Is the content related to the class assignment at all, or is this a kid crying out for help?" according to Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, in Cleveland, Ohio. The second area to consider is the detail and specificity of violent acts and threats. "The general rule is that the more detail and specificity of the threat or planned violent act, the more serious the level of attention given to the threatening material and to the threat maker," says Trump.

But Cornell says he is concerned that some cases get blown out of proportion. "I've seen overreactions where students have been hauled off by police because of something they've written that was not a serious threat," he adds.

Cornell declined to provide an example, but Allen Lee's case might be considered one. The straight-A student planned to join the U.S. Marine Corps after finishing high school at Cary-Grove High School, in Cary, Illinois. He was removed from school and charged with disorderly conduct after he wrote a rambling essay that included a line saying he had dreamed about "shooting everyone" and engaging in necrophilia, after which he wrote, "Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did." Subsequently, the USMC declined to allow him to join.

Lee submitted his piece less than two weeks after the Virginia Tech shooting as part of a free-writing assignment in a creative writing class. A rambling piece of prose, it includes the line "Umm, yeah, what to wright [sic] about . . . I'm leaving to join the Marines, and I really don’t give a f--." The essay was reprinted in the Chicago Sun-Times, and Lee provided the newspaper with an addendum that explained references to video games, a song by Green Day, and a quote from the movie Men in Black. He said he was joking when he complained his teacher (who was in her first year) was so bad that it could lead to the first shooting at his high school.

Though Lee's writing appears to be an example of bad taste and poor judgment rather than a sign of mental imbalance or danger to others, a case from Long Island, New York, could be the best example of how attention to a student's writing may have foiled a plan to attack a school. In a diary found in a McDonald's parking lot in July 2007, a fifteen-year-old student at Connetquot High School, in Bohemia, New York, wrote what police described as "numerous terrorist threats and plans to attack the school."

Subsequent investigation uncovered evidence that the teen tried multiple times to buy an Uzi machine gun and explosive black powder via the Internet. Police also found a videotape in which the student and a seventeen-year-old friend listed potential victims.

In a videotaped statement, Connetquot superintendent Alan Groveman credited post- Columbine vigilance with averting a possible attack. "The woman who came forward and turned in this diary -- eight, nine years ago, she would have just thrown it in the trash or ignored it. So vigilance really has been helpful." Though school administrators admit acts of terrorism by students are extremely rare, they say they simply don't want to take any chances when troublesome student writing comes to their attention. "Increasingly, my clients have preferred a better-safe-than-sorry approach," says Mark Sommaruga, a school attorney with Sullivan, Schoen, Campane & Connon, in Hartford, Connecticut.

There are limits to students' free speech rights in the context of writings submitted for class assignments or oral statements made in school and sometimes out of school, Sommaruga says. For instance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld the expulsion of an Arkansas eighth grader who wrote a letter in which he used the F-word ninety times in four pages and described his wish to sodomize, rape, and kill a female classmate. The court said, "A threat does not need to be logical or based in reality before the government may punish someone for making it."

Sommaruga concludes that defenses like "It's just a story" are not going to work in many cases. "In light of the times that we live in," he adds, "a student may have less ability to hide behind creative license and figures of speech, since anyone writing such materials should be aware of the consequences."

To some, this reasoning has Orwellian overtones. Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Michael Chabon wrote an essay for the New York Times in 2004 in which he defended violence in student writings. He argued that it's healthy for students to express the "ugliness" of the world and that adults are being paranoid and prudish.

Others see the new vigilance on student writing as healthy. Paying closer attention to the content of student work may yield clues for school officials concerned about issues such as depression, anger, eating disorders, and bullying, says Ted Feinberg, who spent twenty-six years as a school psychologist and is now assistant executive director of the National Association of School Psychologists.

"One in five kids in school has unmet mental health needs," Feinberg says. "While we don't want to overreact to troublesome student writing, we don't want to underreact, either."

Eric D. Randall is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has written for Time, Newsweek, USA Today, the Washington Post, and the Dallas Morning News.

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