Massachusetts’ highest court has upheld the conviction of a 12-year-old Worcester student who drew a picture of himself pointing a gun at his teacher.
The state’s Supreme Judicial Court concluded that the student’s doodle “constituted a threat” that was a punishable offense under state law.
Identified in court papers only as Milo M., the student, who is now 14 years old, was suspended from his elementary school in 1998 and was sentenced to more than five years’ probation by a juvenile-court judge in 1999.
The punishments came after his teacher confiscated a drawing that depicted the boy pointing a gun at the teacher’s head as she knelt in prayer and pleaded, “Please don’t kill me.”
In its Jan. 5 opinion, the seven-member high court unanimously rejected the argument by the boy’s lawyers that the student’s artwork was protected by his right to free expression under the First Amendment. The panel further ruled that the teacher was “quite reasonable and justifiable” in interpreting the drawing as a threat, given the number of school shootings that had occurred around the country during that time. Between 1996 and 1999, the court decision said, nine school shootings in the United States claimed a total of 36 lives.
“Judges cannot ignore what everybody else knows: Violence and the threat of violence are present in the public schools, and teachers have a duty to take whatever lawful steps are necessary to assure that the school premises are safe and weapon-free,” the decision said.
James Caradonio, the superintendent of the 25,000-student Worcester school district, applauded the ruling. He said it supported the district’s argument that students’ threats need to be taken seriously. “I thought this was a very good decision,” Mr. Caradonio said last week. “This reaffirms that there are clear consequences for this young man’s behavior.”
The boy has returned to the Worcester public schools without incident. Still, some free speech advocates are worried about the implications of the ruling. Kathleen Kelly, the lawyer who represented the boy, described the court’s ruling as an overreaction.
“This takes the ‘threatening’ statute further than any other in Massachusetts and opens the door to criminal prosecution in the school when it’s not the most effective way to deal with some of these issues,” Ms. Kelly argued. She added that the decision might spur schools to go to court for minor disciplinary problems that should be handled in school.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2001 edition of Education Week as Violent Drawing Was a Real Threat, Mass. Court Rules