Court Backs Discipline of 5th Grader in Crayon-Drawn ‘Threat’

By Mark Walsh — March 22, 2012 2 min read
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A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld the suspension of a 5th grader over his crayon-drawn reference to blowing up the school “with the teachers in it.”

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, ruled 2-1 that school officials could suspend the 10-year-old student over a drawing depicting an astronaut who wanted to blow up the school.

The student, identified as B.C., had created other disturbing drawings and had been disciplined for misbehavior in school and at recess, court papers say. The “blow up” remark came when students were asked to fill in a picture of an astronaut and write “wishes” or other statements. (It isn’t clear whether it was the norm in the Valley Central district in New York state for 5th graders to be assigned to fill in pictures with crayons.)

B.C. wrote, “Blow up the school with the teachers in it,” on his artwork and showed it to several students in his class, evoking laughs.

The boy was sent to the principal’s office, and he was suspended for five days out of school and one day at school. His parents sued the district on First Amendment free-speech grounds.

A federal district court granted summary judgment to the district. In its March 22 decision in Cuff v. Valley Central School District, the 2nd Circuit panel upheld the discipline.

“School administrators are in the best position to assess the potential for harm and act accordingly,” the court majority said. “Whether B.C. intended his ‘wish’ as a joke or never intended to carry out the threat is irrelevant. Nor does it matter that B.C. lacked the capacity to carry out the threat expressed in the drawing.”

The court said B.C. engaged in “attention grabbing” by sharing his “blow up” comment with his classmates.

“School administrators might reasonably fear that, if permitted, other students might well be tempted to copy, or escalate, B.C.'s conduct,” the court said. “This might then have led to a substantial decrease in discipline, an increase in behavior distracting students and teachers from the educational mission, and tendencies to violent acts.”

The dissenting judge said B.C.'s comment was a poor joke gone awry.

“I believe that a jury could conclude that this young child’s stab at humor barely had the potential to cause a stir at school, let alone a substantial disruption,” said Judge Rosemary S. Pooler.

She noted that B.C.'s teacher, out of frustration with a raft of student questions about the assignment, told them to stop bothering her about it. Write about “anything,” she told them. “Write about missiles.”

“B.C.'s teacher explicitly suggested that her students consider writing about missiles,” Judge Pooler said. “While the concept of irony may seem well beyond the ken of an average 10-year-old, young children routinely experiment with the seeds of satire.They learn by fumbling their way to finding the boundaries between socially permissible, and even encouraged, forms of expression that employ exaggeration for rhetorical effect, and impermissible and offensive remarks that merely threaten and alienate those around them.”

“This young boy’s drawing was clearly not some subtle, ironic jab at his school or broader commentary about education,” the dissenting judge added. “It was a crude joke. But the First Amendment should make us hesitate before silencing students who experiment with hyperbole for comic effect, however unknowing and unskillful that experimentation may be.”

(Hat Tip to How Appealing.)

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.