By April 26, 2007 1 Comments Read More →

When we told you to express your emotions, we meant emotions we wanted to hear

I’m certainly proud to live in a country where we don’t compound tragedy with hysteria. This morning’s Chicago Tribune (“Massacre fallout: Charges for essay,” by Jeff Long and Carolyn Starks) reports that a high school student in Cary, Illinois was arrested — arrested! — and charged with disorderly conduct for writing an essay that disturbed his teacher. The assignment? Communicate ideas and emotions for a creative-writing class. The essay itself wasn’t released, so we don’t know what it says (we’re all of course imagining that it depicts a Virginia Tech-like scenario). But the Trib paraphrases police as saying it was “violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location.”

I thought the lesson of Virginia Tech was that we should not ignore warning signs of violent behavior and that we should seek help for troubled students. I’m sure that being arrested and having his picture splashed across front pages nationwide will help this young man with his anger problem, if indeed he has one.

Furthermore, I thought that personal expression, whether assigned as homework or extracurricular, was protected in this country unless it contains specific threats to people or property.

But that’s a class that the police and school adminstrators must have cut. According to Community High School District 155 Supt. Jill Hawk:

“Our staff is very familiar with adolescent behavior,” she said. “We’re very well-versed with types of creativity put into writing. We know the standards of adolescent behavior that are acceptable and that there is a range.”

In other words, don’t worry about what the rules are specifically — we’ll tell you when you’ve broken them.

The Virginia Tech massacre was heartbreaking, but treating a possibly troubled student as if he’s already committed a crime only increases the odds that it will happen again. The young man’s father said he wasn’t contacted by anyone — until the police told him his son had been arrested.

Couldn’t this have at least started with a parent-teacher conference?

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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