After Shootings, a Backlash Against Kids?

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

(Editor's note: this article originally appeared May 21, 1999 and is being reprinted in response to reader request)

(CNS) - A student in Milwaukee, talking about pipe bombs, jokingly tells another student, "If I were going to do anything, you're going to be the first to go." The police are called and the student is charged with disorderly conduct.

A third grader who is a martial-arts aficionado in Ohio fills out a fortune to be placed in a fortune cookie for a class assignment that reads, "You will die with honor." He's suspended from school for "writing a note threatening in nature." The statement is considered a compliment among martial-arts practitioners.

In Kansas, a student who remarked that he liked watching things explode was suspended from school for the remainder of the year.

All of these students are victims of a post-Littleton backlash against kids that threatens the right to free expression, say civil libertarians.

"There's a lot of anxiety among school administrators because of Littleton, Paducah, Jonesboro and all those incidents," Nathan Essex, dean of education at the University of Memphis and professor of education law, told CNS. "Some of these events may be justified, but some are obviously overreactions."

Many school officials are even harsher in their assessment. "If you use the word 'kill,'" said Greenfield, Wis., school superintendent William Larkin to reporters, "you're going to come before the board for expulsion."

Essex says that the increasingly hard line taken by administrators on statements that in the past would have been put down to youthful immaturity also has a lot to do with fear of litigation. "Administrators can be liable if it looks like they haven't done enough to prevent violence, so that might account for some of this fierceness," Essex told CNS.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several of its state affiliates have issued calls for calm after the recent spate of school shootings-and is representing several students who face suspension, expulsion, or criminal charges for allegedly issuing threats, wearing threatening clothing, or listening to inciting music.

"Since the tragic shootings in Colorado, ACLU offices all over the country have received hundreds of calls from students and parents of students concerned about potential violations of student rights," said I.J. Barrish, president of the ACLU.

A spokesperson for the National Education Association (NEA) said that the teacher's organization does issue school safety guides that include information on metal detectors and other high-tech safety equipment, but does not necessarily endorse any particular solution.

"Every school is different, so each school should evaluate its needs individually," said Gabrielle Lange of the NEA.

Essex said that, ideally, each incident should be taken care of at the lowest possible administrative level.

"You have to take into account the student's record, the severity of the threat, the school community, and a host of other issues in deciding whether or not these threats could turn into action," he said.

Under the Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, students do enjoy First Amendment protections, though the Court has consistently upheld the notion that those freedoms are not as extensive as those enjoyed by adults, and can be impinged upon in certain circumstances for safety purposes.