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"...another reason I'm intrigued with the hanged of Salem, especially the women, is that a number of them aroused suspicion in the first place because they were financially independent, or sharp-tongued, or kept to themselves. In other words, they were killed off for the same sort of life I live right now but with longer skirts and fewer cable channels." Sarah Vowell, The partly cloudy patriot.


You can't have it both ways

There is a case in the news right now of a high school student who was arrested for his writings.

In an english class, he was given a free writing assignment, and in it he talked about stabbing and dismemberment. He ended the essay by telling the teacher not to be surprised if she was the victim of the first school shooting at the high school.

The teacher (a female) turned the essay over to the principal, who turned it over to the police, who arrested the kid. He is being charged with the same thing that kids who pull fire alarms get.

People are in an uproar about this. Most of the comments I have read note that this is ridiculous, and completely unwarranted. Some say that at the very most, he should get a psych eval, nothing more. The teacher's own mental health is called into question, people talk about freedom of speech, people note that the kid has friends and gets good grades, and wants to be in the military. These last few things are apparently supposed to be signs of his mental health.

And to this I say, Kip Kinkel.

Kip Kinkel shot his parents on May 20, 1998 and then went to school the next day and killed two students, and wounded 25 more.

Before the shootings, his writings showed signs of violent fantasies. Aside from a fascination with guns, this may have been one of the only overt signs of the impending violence. He had friends, he had even had a girlfriend, he didn't do spectacularly in school, he saw a therapist for a while and was on medication for a while.

Sometimes the writing is the best and only sign. With Cho (virginia tech), it seems as though the writings too were the only overt sign of potential violence. His isolation, his stalking, his suicidal talk were not necessarily indicative of violent intent, although in hindsight they sure seem like it.

This isn't to say that anyone who writes about violent stuff should be arrested - but I don't know how people can say so clearly (and with so much astounding confidence) that these particular writings mean nothing. Given too that there was a threat toward the teacher made in them, then I think it is pretty clear that action needed to have been taken, if for no other reason than to show that threatening teachers is a severe offense.

If an employee were to write something like this to a boss, they'd be fired and maybe arrested - why are teachers not as protected? I guess you could argue that it's more that students are protected, not that teachers are not-protected. But I think we actually really think that teachers should just take this crap - or that they deserve it. And perhaps females the most.

Recently there was a case in Washington where two girls tried to poison their teacher by putting strawberry lipgloss on her cup or something. The teacher is deathly allergic to strawberries, and the gloss' chemical mimicked strawberries enough that it caused a reaction.

People were outraged when the girls were arrested. I don't believe that the girls should get any kind of prison sentence (maybe some sort of community service and therapy), but I think that attempted murder is a good thing to thwart, as are threats. No matter who the target is.

And indeed, I am very concerned about civil liberties - very very concerned. However, I don't know that I would at all object to any kind of zero tolerance policy about violence and threats of violence towards others (towards the self is trickier).

If you read about school shootings, one thing that comes up in many of the descriptions of the killers is that they made threats to kill people that were disregarded. Perhaps even feeling ignored for these threats increased the likelihood that they followed through. Who knows. e also don't know at this point how often kids have extremely violent writings or make threats and NEVER do anything. That's a study that needs to be done.

But it seems to me that at this point, given easy access to guns, given how violence permeates our media and culture, given the alienation and lack of concern for others that is fairly endemic in US culture, we need to always take these things seriously. And given too that those of us (mental health professionals) who are often charged with the task of predicting violence are just confused as anyone else (sure there are signs, but it is still a messy messy science, and there is no clear litmus test - and so much, as I've argued earlier, is dependent upon the self-report of the person, and that self-report may or may not be forthcoming), we may need to err toward more intrusive reponding when threats of violence are made.

Moreover, being a model citizen and getting good grades are NOT non-predictors of violence. Plenty of batterers, for example, are pillars of society.

I think maybe that people don't want to believe that a "good kid" could be at risk of violence because we want to convince ourselves that we could prevent and predict such things. It's easy in hindsight to argue that all the signs were there with Cho - but believing that only fools us into thinking that we could recognize someone dangerous quite easily. We need to convince ourselves that we are safe, that no one we know could be a dangerous person, and that we could never ever make the kinds of "mistakes" that we attribute to the officials in Virginia.

Yeah right.

[disclaimer: I had intended to revise this to ensure there were no grammar issues - but I kept sitting on it, and realized that if I get too worried about typos and grammar, I'll never blog again. So if imperfect writing bothers you, you are more than welcome to stop reading my blog, but please don't call them to my attention.]


At 10:57 PM, Blogger Kate said...

I think these are fantastic points. As a teacher of writing, I know I would want to feel as though I could go to my boss if I read anything like that. Either Slant Truth or Irrational Point had a great post about this fairly recently -- rather, it was about what the constitution actually says about free speech (groups are free to say what they please), as opposed to the way folks generally understand it (we can say whatever we want, no consequences!). I don't know the constitution or law so I won't try to do a more coherent explanation... but what I'm trying to say is, I'm for civil liberties, but I am not for death threats.

You are far more eloquent than I!

At 11:14 AM, Blogger Limon de Campo said...

Good post, Shrinky. I had the same thoughts when I read the article. I would've turned the student in and asked to have him removed from my classroom. I don't think that's unreasonable.

(Editing? Pfah. Blogging is an escape from worrying about hyper-editing. Your posts are just fine, IMHO.)


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