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How reasonable do you have to be to run an elementary school in New York? Not very, apparently. In Cuff. v. Valley Central School District, a panel of the Second Circuit voted 2-1 to uphold a five-day suspension for a student who made a crayon drawing of an astronaut wishing the school would blow up.

Because, you know, that might be a true threat. You can’t expect school officials to tell the difference between kids bringing guns to school and kids wishing they could launch themselves into space and blow up the school somehow remotely with a wish.

I suppose it’s relevant to note that the then-10-year-old did not have a spacesuit, a space shuttle, or a magic lantern.

The drawing was created in the context of an assignment the student’s teacher put together. Students were told to write a wish on the picture of an astronaut; the teacher instructed the students in the class that they could write about anything, even about “missiles.” The student wrote about his desire to blow up the school with the teachers in it.

Funny? Maybe, maybe not. When you treat students like this, you shouldn’t be shocked that they harbor some resentment. But how nuanced do you expect a 10-year-old’s political commentary to be?

The majority seemed to completely ignore the forum question: by instructing a student that they could write about anything, even missiles, the school pretty clearly designated the assignment as a forum for expression. And to raid that forum, the school would have to demonstrate that the content created by the student was illegal or disruptive.

The AP story has this quote from the district’s attorney:

Adam I. Kleinberg, a lawyer for the Valley Central School District, said the ruling ‘reaffirms that school officials should be afforded great deference in their decision making.’

He added: ‘School officials should not be required to wait until after an incident occurred. They can’t predict the future. They can only do their best to keep everyone safe.’

Yes, folks. The district cannot be expected to anticipate whether this little boy will grow up, become an astronaut, and gain the power to wish things into existence. They just aren’t capable of predicting whether that will happen. That would require someone much, much smarter than the school administrators we’re dealing with here.

The dissenting judge, Rosemary Pooler, summarizes how a fully-functioning adult might have reacted to the boy’s drawing:

This young boy’s drawing was clearly not some subtle, ironic jab at his school or broader commentary about education. It was a crude joke. But the First Amendment should make us hesitate before silencing students who experiment with hyperbole for comic effect, however unknowing and unskillful that experimentation may be.

The school’s position here creates a false dichotomy: Unless we let schools punish any speech anywhere all the time, then school violence will happen, because administrators can’t tell the difference between a van full of fertilizer and a drawing of someone wishing the school would explode. School administrators just aren’t smart enough to realize that wishes aren’t weapons. The court seems totally untroubled that the instrument of violence here–a wish–is not only not imminent, but is wholly mythological.

Levity aside, this is an excessively deferential ruling that further devalues important First Amendment protections. As Judge Pooler rightly pointed out, the proper response when a school suspects a student may be violent is to pull the student aside for a conversation and investigate — but once the investigation concludes that the student didn’t actually have a missile in his Spiderman lunchbox or any plans to trade his PB&J for one, then there is no Columbine-in-the-making to punish.

Someone needed protecting against something here, but it was not the denizens of Berea Elementary School. It was a fifth-grade boy branded and stigmatized as a predator — over a drawing that elicited only laughter from the few classmates who saw it. At worst, “B.C.” exhibited immature judgment — and you don’t improve that by responding with immature judgment of your own.

 

 

 

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