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Poetry as Art and Threat

The Nation | COLUMN ONE

In an era of school shootings, courts must sometimes decide when students' creative expression becomes criminal intimidation.

June 18, 2003|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

The boy was shy, 15 and new to his high school in San Jose. He wrote poems in his notebooks and carried them everywhere. One day in honors English, he approached a classmate who had been kind to him and asked her to read one of them.

"Is there a poetry club here?" the gangly teenager wanted to know.

The girl read the poem, but it did not spark a friendship. Instead, fearing for her life, she fled the campus. Police went to the boy's home two days later and arrested him.

The poem, called "Faces," ended with these lines:

"For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school. So parents watch your children cuz I'm back!!"

The boy, identified in court records only as George Julius T., had no history of violence and wrote "Faces" at a time when his family was broke and living with an uncle. But a Juvenile Court judge decided that the poem amounted to a criminal threat, a felony, and the boy served four months in juvenile hall.

Haunted by school shootings, teachers, principals and law enforcement officials are scrutinizing students' creative work as never before. They are punishing, expelling and sometimes prosecuting young people whose stories, poetry or art evoke violence.

George's case, now before the California Supreme Court, is one of several across the nation that have vexed judges, forcing them to decide when artistic expression becomes criminal intimidation, and whether a poem or painting is a portent of mayhem or an innocent reaction to the violence that students see around them.

The cases raise complex questions: Is a student who imagines a horrible deed more likely than others to commit one? Or is it natural, even beneficial, for students to express anger and feelings of alienation through art?

A state appellate court upheld George's conviction, but a dissenting judge pointed out that poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell wrote "similarly angst-filled and sometimes violent text."

"This lonely young man was searching for a way to spark a friendship at his new school by sharing his poem," wrote Justice Conrad Rushing of the 6th District Court of Appeal in Santa Clara County.

Increasingly, courts are deferring to school authorities who discipline students for giving vent to violent thoughts. But whether students can be criminally charged for such creative outpourings is a matter of debate, and of conflicting judicial opinions.

In the small Texas town of Pounder, a seventh-grader was held in juvenile hall for several days in 1999 after writing a Halloween story about the shooting of a teacher and two fellow students. The story was deemed an unlawful threat -- until authorities discovered that the boy had been assigned to write a scary story. Then he was released.

In rural Whatcom County, Wash., a school district in 1998 expelled a 16-year-old boy who wrote a poem about a fictitious mass murder on campus. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the expulsion last year.

Placed on Probation

In Worcester, Mass., a 12-year-old boy was placed on probation in 1999 for showing his teacher a picture he had drawn that depicted him shooting her. The state's highest court ruled last year that the drawing was a criminal threat.

"The schools are becoming one of the primary pipelines to the juvenile justice system," said Shannan Wilber, executive director of Legal Services for Children in San Francisco.

Threats are not protected by the Constitution's free speech guarantees, but judges often disagree about what constitutes a threat.

In the context of art or fiction, a violent image is less likely to be viewed as a threat, but "it doesn't make it open and shut," said Eugene Volokh, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA.

Fear of school shootings swept the country in 1999 after two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killed 12 classmates, a teacher and then themselves. The killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had previously made violence-filled videos for a class.

Ed Kovac, director of school security and investigative services for the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County, said districts should be "attentive in the art and English departments, in video classes as well as photography classes.

"That is where it is going to show up, in the artwork and the writings," he said. "So you want your teachers to be vigilant."

After Columbine, a U.S. Department of Education report listed violent stories, poetry and drawings among the harbingers of student violence.

"Many children produce work about violent themes that for the most part is harmless when taken in context," the report said. "However, an overrepresentation of violence in writings and drawings that is directed at specific individuals ... may signal emotional problems and the potential for violence."

Deciding on the right response is not easy, as a school district in Oconto County, Wis., learned in 1998 when a 13-year-old boy committed to paper a homicidal fantasy about a teacher.

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