But make no mistake, First Amenment violation does occasionally happen, though for other reasons...
Student writes essay, arrested by police
Chicago Tribune, April 26, 2007
High school senior Allen Lee sat down with his creative writing class on Monday and penned an essay that so disturbed his teacher, school administrators and police that he was charged with disorderly conduct.
"I understand what happened recently at Virginia Tech," said the teen's father, Albert Lee, referring to last week's massacre of 32 students by gunman Seung-Hui Cho. "I understand the situation."
But he added: "I don't see how somebody can get charged by writing in their homework. The teacher asked them to express themselves, and he followed instructions."
Allen Lee, an 18-year-old straight-A student at Cary-Grove High School, was arrested Tuesday near his home and charged with disorderly conduct for an essay police described as violently disturbing but not directed toward any specific person or location.
The youth's father said his son was not suspended or expelled but was forced to attend classes elsewhere for now.
Today, Cary-Grove students rallied behind the arrested teen by organizing a petition drive to let him back in their school. They posted on walls quotes from the English teacher in which she had encouraged students to express their emotions through writing.
"I'm not going to lie. I signed the petition," said senior James Gitzinger. "But I can understand where the administration is coming from. I think I would react the same way if I was a teacher."
Cary Police Chief Ron Delelio said the charge was appropriate even though the essay was not published or posted for public viewing.
Disorderly conduct, which carries a penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 fine, is filed for pranks such as pulling a fire alarm or dialing 911. But it can also apply when someone's writings can disturb an individual, Delelio said.
"The teacher was alarmed and disturbed by the content," he said.
But a civil rights advocate said the teacher's reaction to an essay shouldn't make it a crime.
"One of the elements is that some sort of disorder or disruption is created," said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "When something is done in private—when a paper is handed in to a teacher—there isn't a disruption."
The "key outcomes" this month for the Creative English class was for students to identify and utilize poetic conventions to communicate ideas and emotions. With that in mind, teachers reminded students that if they read something that posed a threat to self or others, the school could take action, said High School District 155 Supt. Jill Hawk.
The English teacher read the essay and reported it to a supervisor and the principal. A round-table discussion with district officials conveyed, with lively debate, and they decided to report it to the police.
"Our staff is very familiar with adolescent behavior. 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," Hawk said.
"There can certainly be writing that conveys concern for us even though it does not name names location or date," he said.
The charge against Lee comes as schools across the country wrestle with how to react in the wake of the shootings at the Virginia Tech campus at Blacksburg, Va.
Bomb threats at high schools in Schaumburg and Country Club Hills have caused evacuations, and extra police were on duty at a Palos Hills high school this week because of a threatening note found in the bathroom of a McDonald's restaurant a half-mile away.
Experts say the charge against Lee is troubling because it was over an essay that even police say contained no direct threats against anyone at the school. However, Virginia Tech's actions toward Cho came under heavy scrutiny after the killings because of the "disturbing" plays and essays teachers say he had written for classes.
Simmie Baer, an attorney with the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University, called the Cary incident an example of zero-tolerance policies gone awry. Children, she said, are not as sophisticated as adults and often show emotion through writing or pictures, which is what teachers should want because it is a safe outlet.
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