ZERO TOLERANCE


In reaction to violence, schools are cracking down on student speech





Six months after the Columbine shooting in Littleton, Colo., that\nleft 15 people dead, students across the country continue to face\nharsh punishments for expressing themselves in ways schools see\nas threatening or even unconventional.

High school administrators are still reacting -- and some would\nsay overreacting -- to perceived threats of school violence by\ncensoring students' voices. School officials say they are just\ntrying to keep their students safe. But many civil liberties advocates\naccuse administrators of violating students' rights and confusing\nconformity with security.

"A lot of educators feel that the safest thing to do is\nto take every utterance seriously, and if a kid says anything\neven remotely off-color, suspend them or even throw them in jail,\nand that way, if anything happens, you're covered," said\nJon Katz, a columnist who has written extensively about post-Columbine\ncensorship for free! the Freedom Forum's news and information\nWeb site.

"Schools that are terrified of being second-guessed about\ntheir decisions have basically decided to protect themselves by\nunleashing a reign of ideological terror on kids who dare to speak\nout," he said.

But it's not just school administrators who have been caught\nup in the frenzy to bulldoze students' rights in the name of school\nsafety. Police officers, prosecutors and judges are responding\nto the fear of violence by invoking the criminal justice system\nas a way to silence student speech.

In Texas, a seventh grader spent six days in a juvenile\ndetention center in October after he was arrested for writing\na Halloween horror story in which he described accidentally shooting\ntwo classmates and a teacher.

Christopher Beamon, 13, said his teacher instructed the class\nto write a horror story about being home alone and hearing noises.\nHe received extra credit for reading the story aloud in class.\n

The next day, sheriff's deputies arrested him at school after\nreceiving a call from Ponder High School Principal Chance Allen.\nParents had complained about the story, saying they were worried\nBeamon might hurt their children.

Denton County Juvenile Court Judge Darlene Whitten ordered\nBeamon detained for 10 days after reviewing his school disciplinary\nrecords. She approved the early release after Beamon's attorney\ndemanded his freedom and the county prosecutor dropped the case.\n

A North Carolina student was also arrested for speech\nthat he made while in school. In September, a jury convicted Joshua\nMortimer of communicating threats by leaving a message on a school\ncomputer screen that said, "The end is near."

Mortimer, a student at Hoggard High School in Wilmington, was\ngiven a 45-day suspended sentence with 18 months of probation\nand ordered to complete 48 hours of community service for the\nmessage, which was discovered by a student on May 4, two weeks\nafter the Columbine shooting.

School officials also expelled him for one year.

Sofie Hosford, Mortimer's attorney, said Mortimer is appealing\nthe jury's verdict.

"The statement, 'The end is near,' even in context of\nwhere it was found on the school computer, is not a threat,"\nHosford said. "It's an ambiguous statement, and it just doesn't\nmeet the legal requirements of what a threat is."

Hosford said she believes the jury convicted Mortimer because\nof "backlash from the Columbine incident."

In another computer-related case, three teachers at an Indiana\nhigh school have filed a defamation lawsuit against a student\nwho posted a Web site that featured a list of 11 teachers and\nadministrators he accused of being "Satan-worshipping demons."\n

The teachers who filed the suit said the references to satanism\non Carmel High School student Brian Conradt's Web site left them\nparanoid in the days after the Columbine shooting.

The site, which has since been taken down, urged visitors to\ntease the teachers listed on the site and contained an e-mail\naddress that included the phrase, "tyme-2-dye."

The teachers are being supported in their lawsuit by the Indiana\nState Teachers Association, which is paying their legal fees.\n

Conradt was also charged with six counts of intimidation in\njuvenile court after a school security officer brought complaints\nabout the site to police.

In the case of another student punished for speech he made\noutside of school, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a\nfederal lawsuit in October on behalf of a Missouri high\nschool student who was suspended for a comment he made about school\nviolence on an Internet discussion board.

Dustin Mitchell, a junior at Rolla High School, was suspended\nfor 10 days last spring and required to perform 42 hours of community\nservice for a comment he made on a teens-only Internet discussion\nboard five days after the shooting at Columbine High School. In\nresponse to the question, "Do you think such a tragedy could\nhappen at your school?" Mitchell typed "Yes!"

Bryan Scheiderer, Mitchell's attorney, said officials at Rolla\nHigh School told Mitchell he was being suspended because of the\ncomment he made on the discussion board and because Mitchell used\nthe name of another student at the school as an alias when he\nposted his one-word reply.

The school eventually reduced Mitchell's suspension to four\ndays. Mitchell said he only completed about 12 hours of the community\nservice requirement.

"I started [doing the community service], but the more\nI thought about it, it wasn't right," he said. "I was\njust speaking my mind."

Mitchell, who said he is now living in Washington state with\nfriends, is suing the Rolla school district to have the suspension\nerased from his disciplinary record.

"The school overstepped their bounds," Mitchell said.\n"It's a matter of how much authority does the school have\nto punish its students when they're not on school time or underneath\nthe school's jurisdiction. It wasn't a felony. It wasn't a misdemeanor.\nAll I did was say 'yes.'"

But according to Katz, that's all a student has to say these\ndays to get suspended.

"It is now a crime to speak in a hostile way about school,"\nhe said. "Kids are getting suspended all over the place for\nexpressing anger and hostility about school."

"Schools are telling kids, 'Don't you dare criticize us,\nit could really cost you,'" he said.

Katz said this attitude is also being applied to student newspapers.\nHe called the Columbine shooting's impact on the student press\n"devastating."

"I get e-mail constantly from editors of student papers\nwho say they're being censored left and right," he said.\n"[The student press] is just being wantonly censored and\nshut down. I think the same chilling effect that exists on individual\nstudents exists on them."

Katz predicted that the national climate will eventually warm\nfor student expression, but said there is no indication that it\nwill happen any time soon.

"It's going to take a long time before kids are encouraged\nto speak freely again," Katz said. "These pendulums\nbegin to turn, and I think some of these stories like the 13-year-old\nkid in Texas who was thrown in jail are really disturbing people.\nI think people are beginning to sit up and ask what kind of price\nthey've been paying. My guess is the pendulum will start swinging\nback, but it could be years.

"I think there's been enormous permanent damage done to\nthe whole idea of expressing oneself freely both through student\npapers and individual expression," he said.


reports, Winter 1999-2000