Shootings Spur Move To Police Students' Work

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When a 10th grader doodled a map of his New Mexico high school--complete with escape routes, bomb blasts, and booby traps--it sent a classmate running for a teacher and set off a series of disciplinary measures that left the young artist suspended and facing felony charges.

Teachers in Dallas, responding to perceived bomb warnings and murder threats outlined in the class essays of children as young as 6, have rushed to implement the district's new procedures for identifying potentially dangerous students.

And when a student in Granite City, Ill., spewed angry words at several classmates, his parents were called and he was sent to counseling.

In the atmosphere of heightened alert following the fatal school shootings in Colorado a month ago, various channels for student expression--from creative-writing assignments to art projects to classroom debates--are coming under intense scrutiny. Teachers, administrators, and even students themselves are increasingly intent on detecting any hints of potential mayhem such as those that have, in hindsight, haunted their counterparts at Columbine High School and other schools where student gunmen have struck.

"Expression is a way to deal with issues. Whether it's in their music, writing, dance, or athletics, kids are going to tell us something about what's going on with them," said Howard C. Stevenson, a professor of education in the community and clinical-child-psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "Do we see something as potentially a cry for help? The teacher has to make a judgment."

The New Mexico 10th grader at Socorro High School, about an hour south of Albuquerque, said he was merely designing new playing fields for a popular computer fantasy game. Another student in the nearby Los Lunas district was also suspended for sketching escape routes from his high school, but he was cleared after officials learned he was frightened he would not be able to get out of the building in an emergency and was mapping out the best plan for escape.

A San Francisco youth is suing his district after his suspension last year over a class essay. In it, he described starting a riot and killing the principal. The student says the paper was a piece of fiction, not a plan of action.

'It's Just a Story'

Some civil rights groups, parents, and even teachers, while recognizing the quandary educators face in preserving both student rights and safety, fear the response in some cases is too swift and too harsh. They are cautioning school officials to tread carefully around matters that are not clear-cut and that may violate students' rights to free expression.

Several state affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union, in letters to hundreds of districts, are calling for "calm and reasonable action." ACLU offices say they have been flooded with complaints in recent weeks from parents who believe school officials and police have overreacted to things students have written or said.

"I characterize these [cases] as hysteria, witch hunts," said Keith D. Elston, the executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico.

But more and more districts are encouraging teachers, even compelling them in some instances, to err on the side of caution when they judge student work.

In Illinois' 8,400-student Granite City school system, for example, a new district policy, adopted as a result of the school shootings in Jonesboro, Ark., last year, requires teachers to report immediately "behaviors of students which could lead to armed violence." Once reported, a student is supposed to be evaluated by school administrators and mental-health personnel to determine if he or she fits the "profile" of someone who may have a penchant for violence.

The 166,000-student Dallas district has a similar policy.

Such profiles have been composed using lists of characteristics common to the assailants in a series of highly publicized school shootings. The U.S. Department of Education last summer released a school safety guide that lists warning signs, which include a student's behavioral history, family background, access to weapons, and "expression of violence in writing or drawing." The National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif., has released a similar list based on studies of the student gunmen.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the seniors who killed 13 people and themselves at Columbine High near Denver on April 20, exhibited several of those warning signs, officials now say.

Cheryl Lucas, an English teacher at the school, has said she was concerned about the boys' stories about war and killing, which were, in her words, "horribly, graphically violent." Ms. Lucas claims that school officials were told about the essays, which did not violate any school policies and were eventually deemed harmless.

"In the context of hindsight, it's easy to look back and say it was a warning sign," said Barbara Monseu, the area administrator for the 89,000-student Jefferson County district, which includes Columbine. "But you deal with it, and the student's response is, 'It's just a story.' "

Predicting Behavior

Determining which students may act on the frustrations released on paper is not an exact science, experts say.

"When dealing with human beings, it's not like putting a metal detector at the front gate and having a kid walk through, and it goes off or it doesn't," said Lisa L. Swem, a lawyer in Lansing, Mich., who represents schools. "In [evaluating student writing], there is not a definite test that sets off alarms and shouts, 'Danger, danger!' "

In the Columbine case, student essays were a possible predictor of the violence that followed, but "another kid could write the same thing and not mean anything by it," said Ennio C. Cipani, the coordinator of the school psychology doctorate program at the California School of Professional Psychologists in Fresno, which trains school psychologists.

"In the psychological sciences, we have a hard time trying to identify predictor variables of future behavior," he said. "We tend to make two types of errors. ... In some situations, we say this is going to happen when it actually wouldn't, and in others, we say it won't happen, and then it does."

Teachers must weigh a variety of factors, such as changes in behavior, Mr. Cipani said. They should attempt to draw out a student's feelings and motivations in creating work that reflects violent thoughts. That requires getting to know students better--an often difficult task, experts concede, for teachers who may see more than 100 youngsters each day.

In the end, they say, teachers should seek the advice and assistance of colleagues, school counselors, and administrators whenever possible.

From Ridicule to Hysteria?

Ironically, some teachers say, in the past, they were ridiculed for their alarm over what students said or did. Within the past month, in contrast, they have become afraid that such reports will lead to near-hysteria.

"Prior to [the Columbine] shooting, teachers couldn't get support from principals. They weren't taken seriously," said Eric Crump, the World Wide Web site manager for the National Council of Teachers of English, who has been monitoring an online discussion of school violence. "Now, police are being called on a daily basis, and students are being hauled off. ... They are concerned about how this disrupts the education process."

Teachers must decipher whether student work with a violent theme signals impending action, provides a harmless way for the student to vent frustrations, or is merely a piece of creative writing.

Michelle Pegram finds that task particularly difficult. The Chicago high school teacher hears about violence daily from her students, many of whom encounter it in their high-crime community. Ms. Pegram said she must be attuned to subtle changes in students' behavior, tension in someone's voice, or even a wrinkle in a brow.

"For me, violence is a constant stream that I have to filter through. My students sit and talk about their experiences," she said, "and I try to listen and see if they are on the edge and close to doing something that's going to be a mistake, or if it's just everyday tension."

Ms. Pegram believes her class provides an important venue for students to air their feelings, a view shared by many experts, who agree that creative expression is a powerful vehicle for addressing the volatile emotions many teenagers experience at one time or another.

But now, Ms. Pegram and other teachers worry that the ante has been raised, and feel that they are under greater pressure to police student work.

"Teachers realize that everything that happens is potentially harmful to relatively innocent students," said Mr. Crump, recounting the views expressed by hundreds of teachers participating in the NCTE discussion. "But if they don't react, the consequences could be potentially dangerous."

Staff Writer Jessica Portner contributed to this report.

Vol. 18, Issue 37, Pages 1, 14

Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Shootings Spur Move To Police Students' Work
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