When Student Writings Set Off School Alarms

by: Katy Abel
This article discusses how to handle the issue of students expression and safety concerns.

When Student Writings Set Off School Alarms

Horror Story Lands Canadian Teen in Jail
The unidentified 16-year-old boy had no history of violent behavior. Even so, the horror story he wrote about blowing up a school was enough to land him behind bars.

The Canadian teen celebrated Christmas, New Year's, and his own birthday in a juvenile detention facility, much to the outrage of both civil libertarians and celebrated authors. Although he has since been released, the boy's incarceration has once again stirred debate over a student's right to free speech, versus a school's right to take precautions against possible violence.

"I guess no one knew he had woken up at 5:00 a.m. and had jimmied the lock to one of the back doors," the boy wrote in his story, "Twisted". "In addition, in his bag he was carrying 13 packages of C-4 (explosives) and a detonator."

The shy student, a newcomer at Tagwi Secondary School in a rural town in eastern Ontario, was taunted by classmates after sharing his story, and then threatened to "get even," according to news reports. He was arrested even though a police raid on his home turned up no arsenal of guns or explosives. The Canadian Civil Liberties Union has called the student's arrest "disturbing."

"Of course I wish my son wrote about butterflies or flowers instead of blowing a school up," the boy's mother, Jul Johnson, told The Boston Globe. "But he should have the freedom to choose his own style of writing...No one ever put Stephen King in jail for writing bizarre stories."

King himself issued a brief statement about the case, observing: "It has been a time-honored custom to put people in jail or bully them because of their imagination." Although the best-selling horror writer has never been locked up for writing fiction, those who work with troubled teenagers suggest that the critical difference is that King is not a student writing at a time when schools across North America remain on high alert, still fearful of another massacre like the one at Columbine.

Psychiatrists View Case Differently
Did Canadian school officials and law enforcement overreact? Or is the sense of caution justified, given recent history?

"Every single kid who writes a fantasy story can't be sent to jail," reasons Dr. Arnie Kerzner, a child and family psychiatrist in private practice outside Boston, Massachusetts. "On the other hand, any teenager who writes a story like that needs to go through a series of assessments."

"A child who writes a story about blowing up a school is sending up a smoke signal," believes Dr. Jacqueline Olds, a child psychiatrist affiliated with McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. "It could be part of normal adolescent behavior, but without a psychiatric evaluation you don't know."

Once a violent story or illustration is committed to paper, Olds says, there is a greater, though still small, probability that a child will actually follow through with violent action of some sort.

"The key questions are: How much does this child feel like an outsider and how much have they shared a predisposition to revenge?" Olds asks. She notes that teen killers are much more likely to have told friends or teachers about their plans for violence than adult serial killers.

Both Kerzner and Olds agree that before expulsions and police raids occur, a student should undergo a series of careful screenings, beginning with a conversation between the student and a teacher, who asks: "Is the theme of your story something you have ever imagined doing?" Then guidance counselors should assess the student, meet with parents, and seek an outside psychiatric evaluation. Kerzner believes that many schools have developed protocols on how to handle such situations, although not universally, as the Canadian case appears to illustrate.

"It's terrible because schools are so panicky now, they want to expel a child without any safety net of services to eventually return the child to school," laments Olds, who notes that expelling a student who feels like an outsider can provoke rather than dispel any sense of rage he may feel.

Kerzner says that despite parental concern about media influences, whether in the form of grisly fiction or explicit TV shows, emotionally healthy teens are unlikely to write stories about blowing up schools or murdering classmates for shock value alone. Olds concurs, "By age nine or ten, most children have a sense of what's 'outside the line.'"