Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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.

November 13, 2007

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 investigatorswould later call "a disturbing paper" for Englishclass. In it, the future Virginia Tech shooter threatened bothsuicide and homicide and stated that "he wanted to repeatColumbine," according to a report by a panel appointed byVirginia governor Tim Kaine. Cho continued to hand in disturbingwriting assignments in college -- and later killed thirty-twopeople, including himself, in the deadliest mass shootingin U.S. history.

Cho's influence is being felt in classrooms across the nation,particularly among English teachers. Because Cho and someother school shooters may have foreshadowed their rampages increative writing assignments, English teachers in many schoolsare being asked to fulfill a new, often uncomfortable role: campussentinel. Teachers are now reviewing student essays, poems,and short stories not just for spelling,grammar, and organization but also foremotional content that might haveimplications for the safety of the studentor the school.

"We expect our teachers to reportthings they see, hear, or read," says JohnSawchuk, principal of Columbia HighSchool, in East Greenbush, New York.In February 2004, he tackled a sixteen-year-old school shooter and wrested a12-gauge shotgun from him, but not before the student, JonRomano, fired a shot that struck a teacher in the leg. No studentswere hurt, but eighty-two victims were named in anindictment. "What we learned is that we don't take anychances," Sawchuk says. "We have to do what we can to preventthese things from happening."

Teachers say content that could be viewed as troublingarises frequently in student writing. In poems, plays, and othercreative writing assignments submitted to teachers for grading,students have written about everything from self-mutilation tomass murder. Depressive and suicidal themes are common, educatorsalso report.

"You can’t pretend it's all fiction," says Carol Jago, whodirects the California Reading and Literature Project, at the University of California at Los Angeles, and has taught Englishat Santa Monica High School, in Santa Monica, California, forthirty-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 Teachersof English. She adds that teachers are shying away from open-endedcreative writing assignments and are less likely to have studentskeep journals, which have also fallen out of favor forpedagogical reasons. "I tell my students, 'You are writing ina school setting, and your teacher is an old lady.' We need tohelp students learn to write for an audience."

When she comes across something disturbing, Jago prefersto talk directly to the student or possibly a parent, but that'snot always possible. For instance, if a teacher obtains informationthat indicates a student may have been a victim of sexualabuse, state law may consider the teacher a "mandatedreporter" who must formally report the allegation.

It's routine in the post-Columbine era for school administratorsto ask all teachers and staff to report anything thatcould affect school safety, but English teachers find they areprivy 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, inLatham, New York. At Shaker, teachers are asked to bring concernsto a guidance counselor. In other schools, the principal issupposed to be informed.

In all cases, teachers find they must make judgment callsabout what to report. How can a teacherdistinguish a piece written by a potentialschool shooter or suicide victimfrom a creative work that simply givesvoice to teenage angst? Experts sayteachers can't, and they shouldn't try.

"I would not ask teachers to make ajudgment that even trained psychologistsfind difficult to make," says DeweyCornell, a forensic psychologist at theUniversity of Virginia and coauthor ofthe book Guidelines for Responding to Student Threats of Violence."It's not surprising that many boys write about violence, becausethey spend a lot of time with entertainment media that depictsviolence. Many kids who are not dangerous write violent fantasies,so that's not a good indicator."

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

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

Cornell declined to provide an example, but Allen Lee's casemight be considered one. The straight-A student planned to jointhe U.S. Marine Corps after finishing high school at Cary-GroveHigh School, in Cary, Illinois. He was removed from school andcharged with disorderly conduct after he wrote a rambling essaythat included a line saying he had dreamed about "shootingeveryone" and engaging in necrophilia, afterwhich he wrote, "Well, not really, but it wouldbe funny if I did." Subsequently, the USMCdeclined to allow him to join.

Lee submitted his piece less than twoweeks after the Virginia Tech shooting as partof a free-writing assignment in a creativewriting class. A rambling piece of prose, itincludes 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 wasreprinted in the Chicago Sun-Times, and Leeprovided the newspaper with an addendumthat explained references to video games, asong by Green Day, and a quote from themovie Men in Black. He said he was jokingwhen he complained his teacher (who was inher first year) was so bad that it could lead tothe first shooting at his high school.

Though Lee's writing appears to be anexample of bad taste and poor judgmentrather than a sign of mentalimbalance or danger to others,a case from Long Island,New York, could be the bestexample of how attentionto a student's writing mayhave foiled a plan to attack aschool. In a diary found in aMcDonald's parking lot inJuly 2007, a fifteen-year-oldstudent at ConnetquotHigh School, in Bohemia,New York, wrote whatpolice described as "numerousterrorist threats andplans to attack the school."

Subsequent investigationuncovered evidence that the teentried multiple times to buy an Uzi machinegun and explosive black powder via theInternet. Police also found a videotape inwhich the student and a seventeen-year-oldfriend listed potential victims.

In a videotaped statement, Connetquotsuperintendent Alan Groveman credited post-Columbine vigilance with averting a possibleattack. "The woman who came forward andturned in this diary -- eight, nine years ago, shewould have just thrown it in the trash orignored it. So vigilance really has been helpful."Though school administrators admitacts of terrorism by students are extremelyrare, they say they simply don't want to takeany chances when troublesome student writingcomes to their attention. "Increasingly, myclients have preferred a better-safe-than-sorryapproach," says Mark Sommaruga, a schoolattorney with Sullivan, Schoen, Campane &Connon, in Hartford, Connecticut.

There are limits to students' free speechrights in the context of writings submittedfor class assignments or oral statements madein school and sometimes out of school,Sommaruga says. For instance, the U.S.Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuitupheld the expulsion of an Arkansas eighthgrader who wrote a letter in which he usedthe F-word ninety times in four pages anddescribed his wish to sodomize, rape, and killa female classmate. The court said, "A threatdoes not need to be logical or based in realitybefore the government may punish someonefor making it."

Sommaruga concludes that defenses like"It's just a story" are not going to work inmany cases. "In light of the times that welive in," he adds, "a student may have lessability to hide behind creativelicense and figures ofspeech, since anyone writingsuch materials should beaware of the consequences."

To some, this reasoninghas Orwellian overtones.Pulitzer Prize–winning novelistMichael Chabon wrotean essay for the New YorkTimes in 2004 in which hedefended violence in studentwritings. He arguedthat it's healthy for studentsto express the "ugliness" ofthe world and that adults are being paranoidand prudish.

Others see the new vigilance on studentwriting as healthy. Paying closer attention tothe content of student work may yield cluesfor school officials concerned about issuessuch as depression, anger, eating disorders,and bullying, says Ted Feinberg, who spenttwenty-six years as a school psychologist andis now assistant executive director of theNational Association of School Psychologists.

"One in five kids in school has unmetmental health needs," Feinberg says. "Whilewe don't want to overreact to troublesomestudent 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 theDallas Morning News.

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