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
"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,"
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."
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
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,
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.