School administrators may be misperceiving the meaning of works published underground
The sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance” echoing off the auditorium walls mixed with the anticipation of receiving a high school diploma were not a part of Nathan Angelo’s graduation ceremonies this past year.
Instead, the Cheshire High School senior and 10 other students were forced to wait until July to take finals and receive their diplomas — a punishment they received for their participation in publishing an underground newspaper deemed inappropriate and dangerous by the school’s administration and local law enforcers.
The publication, Eyesight To The Blind, featured a column titled, “Hey, Do You Know Who I Hate?,” in which the author wrote that one teacher “needs a serious attitude adjustment, possibly by a hollow-point bullet to the head.”
The author, Jed Molivar, a friend of Angelo’s, could face jail time after being charged with breach of peace and harassment by law enforcers in Cheshire, a town in central Connecticut.
“I’m still wondering why I was punished,” Angelo said. “[Molivar] snuck the article in the paper after everything else was written. Why were the rest of us punished? It doesn’t make sense.”
The recent outbreak of school shootings across the nation has influenced administrators to crack down on anything they feel could lead to further serious acts of violence on school grounds, and controversial underground newspapers are the hottest target.
In Miami, nine students from Killian High School who authored First Amendment, a compilation of poetry and criticism of the school, were arrested and had to transfer schools in February after principal Timothy Dawson felt threatened by an article that read, “I often have wondered what would happen if I shot Dawson in the head and other teachers who have pissed me off.”
Several of those arrested were forced to stay at a detention center overnight, charged with hate crimes in connection with the pamphlet’s crude attacks against immigrants who “don1t speak English.” At least one of the girls was subjugated to a strip search, according to her lawyer, before entering the detention center.
In Tallahassee, an annual satire publication, Low Life, authored by two Leon High School students included a passage in which the author wrote, in reference to a teacher, he would “rape you and all your children,” “I will kill you” and “Die, Nigger.” The students who admitted authoring the articles were not allowed to graduate with their peers and for a short time, faced criminal charges from the local sheriff’s office. Leon High School officials said if the incident would have happened any time during the year other than at the very end, the two students would have been expelled from school immediately.
In each of the cases, however, the student authors claimed they were not threatening anybody, rather they were writing for humorous purposes only.
Even if it was meant to be satirical, this is no excuse when lives are threatened, said Holmes Braddock, a Miami-Dade County Public School Board member and staunch supporter of the action taken against the nine students from Killian.
“The students had the right to publish the obscene and the trashy material in the publication, but they stepped over the boundary when they threatened to kill the principal,” Braddock said.
Braddock pointed out that if no action was taken against the First Amendment authors, it could have set a dangerous precedent for other students thinking about committing a violent act.
“If a principal ignores a publication that publishes a threat against the school in some way, and the next day some kids walk in the school and blast away at other students, the principal would be eaten alive when people found out that this could have been prevented by taking some action against the kids who published the thing,” he said.
With the atmosphere today in schools because of the recent incidents of violence in Oregon, Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky, administrators can not take these types of underground publications lightly, he said.
“You just can’t tell if students are going to do something or not,” Braddock said. “Better that they are deterred from something than not.” Leon High School assistant principal Jack Gaskins said before the outbreak of school shootings these threats would have been taken lightly and probably would have been disregarded.
“Now it’s a major concern though,” he said. “That’s why we turned our situation over to the sheriff’s department. You need to take any and all the precautions you can.”
Underground newspaper student authors disagree with administrators taking a rigid stand against underground publications, saying written words do not insinuate violence and that satire should not be taken seriously.
Although Molivar, the Cheshire author of the controversial article in Eyesight To The Blind, was not allowed to speak about the issue, Angelo said Molivar did not realize what he was writing was inappropriate.
“He only meant it as a joke,” Angelo said. “He’s not a violent person, and he doesn’t think that way — I can assure you that.”
One of the Killian High School student authors of First Amendment, 18-year old David Morales told the Miami Herald, “Anybody with an IQ over five could see the pamphlet was a satire. To take it as a death threat is ridiculous. It’s just ramblings.”
Verbs and Violence When school administrators take drastic steps against the student authors of underground newspapers, many times the question of what is prompting the students to write in this fashion in the first place is never asked.
Jean Cirillo, a clinical psychologist who studies teen behavior out of Massapequa, N.Y., said administrators are overreacting when they think students will act in a threatening manner after writing about a violent act.
“Kids seek attention this way,” Cirillo said. “There1s nothing that makes a kid feel better than scaring a powerful adult.”
She also said writers almost never kill.
“The kids who write these kind of things aren’t going to act it out,” she said. “They’re just standing up to power.”
Cirillo went on to say the harsh punishment administrators are giving students who publish these articles solves nothing.
“Rather than taking action like arresting them, it would be better to just tell them it isn’t necessary or appropriate to write about killing someone,” she said. “The administrators and police obviously wanted to make an example to make it go away, but now there is more a chance for it to keep going. The kids now become heroes to others.”
Robert Butterworth, a clinical psychologist from Los Angeles, said it is natural for administrators to feel frightened or nervous about underground publications that speak about a violent act, but he feels there is little to worry about.
“There is no set rule saying if you write something bad, violence will come from that,” Butterworth said. “These kids are just angry. That’s it.” A lawyer representing seven of the nine Killian High School students involved in publishing First Amendment, Ben Waxman, said the content of the pamphlet is no worse than what is broadcast on television to teens across the country on shows like Comedy Central’s South Park and MTV.
“The kind of language expressed in the publication is heard everyday in the halls at [Killian High School],” Waxman said. “The publication was not intended to appeal to the purient [interest] of the school and students, and it was not intended to defame. It was intended to criticize and focus a critical eye on the principal and his control over the school.” Challenging Authority Criticizing the administration’s power in the school is a common theme when students explain why they write about committing violent acts against their teachers, peers and administrators.
Often times the reasons the underground publications are created in the first place is to serve as an outlet for editorials and opinion pieces that an administrator censored.
“Many of our authors come from the [official] student newspaper,” Angelo said. “The principal doesn’t like criticism, even if it1s truthful. In the school paper, everything has a happy spin. Anything good is reported and anything negative is left out.”
In a letter to Miami-Dade School Board members about the Killian students, Howard Simon, the Florida director of the American Civil Liberties Union, stated the administrators “overlooked the fact that the students were trying to say something serious (although sometimes too crudely) about the administration of their high school … about the behavior of their principal and about censorship.”
In agreement with Simon, Morales said the First Amendment pamphlet was produced because “we wanted to practice our First Amendment rights to say what we think. Mainly, it was a way just to get our voices out.”
Misunderstood With enrollment at Hofstra University on the horizon this fall, Angelo said he is looking forward to getting away from Cheshire High School and the events that took place in connection with Eyesight To The Blind.
“As I look back on the whole situation, I don’t agree with what [Molivar] wrote about the teachers, but at the same time I think he had all the right in the world to publish what he thought,” he said. “The administration just took a joke too seriously.”
Fall 1998, reports