Remember the 16-year-old from New Jersey who was arrested last month after a teacher reported his notebook doodles of “what appeared to be weapons?” Now the same sort of hypervigilance on the part of school officials has caused another teen in San Francisco to be suspended and possibly expelled from school for her private creative expression — this time for a poem containing the lines “I understand the killings in Connecticut. I know why he pulled the trigger.”
Courtni Webb, a 17-year-old senior at Life Learning Academy charter school, frequently expresses her feelings through poetry in a private notebook. But last month, a teacher found the notebook and noticed Courtni’s poem expressing empathy with the feelings of alienation and anger that may have driven Newtown shooter Adam Lanza. The poem read in part:
They wanna hold me back
I run but still they attack
My innocence, I won’t get back
I used to smile
They took my kindness for weakness
The silence the world will never get
I understand the killing in Connecticut
I know why he pulled the trigger
The government is a shame
Society never wants to take the blame
Society puts these thoughts in our head
Misery loves company
If I can’t be loved no one can.
While many former and current teenagers might recognize this as “typical teen poetry fodder,” administrators at Courtni’s school decided that the poem contravened their zero-tolerance policy towards violence because it “contained deeply concerning, and threatening language related to the recent school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.” Courtni was indefinitely suspended from school before the winter break, and there has been no news coverage to indicate whether she’s been allowed to return since classes resumed on January 7.
Although Courtni hasn’t been arrested or charged with a crime, her case is similar to that of another California student who was aided in court by CBLDF in 2004. Like Courtni, 15-year-old George T. had an independent interest in poetry. After some acquaintances became alarmed at poems he shared with them in which he wrote “I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school,” George was arrested and charged with making a criminal threat. Although he was initially convicted and sentenced to 100 days in juvenile detention, the conviction was eventually overturned by the California Supreme Court, which found that the lower courts erroneously “construed the word ‘can’ to mean ‘will’” and George’s words did not constitute a threat, but were constitutionally protected free expression.
In Courtni’s case, it’s not even possible to similarly misinterpret a threat, but an arbitrarily applied zero-tolerance policy has put her education on hold. We hope to hear soon that she’s been allowed to return to school. As psychiatrist Ronald Pies pointed out in a blog post at PsychCentral, “[w]e would be fortunate, as a society, if more lonely and alienated young people expressed their feelings in poetry, and fewer, through acts of violence.”
Please help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work and reporting on issues such as this by making a donation or becoming a member of the CBLDF!
Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.