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I read an article that troubled me…

November 6, 2005, 10:31 PM

I was reading this past Saturday’s News Virginian, and an article on the front page of the paper troubled me. The article was called “Dilemma of threats on Internet”. Here’s a link to the article.

The basic premise of the article was about students’ reactions in their own online journals to an incident at Riverheads High School in Augusta County, where a 15-year-old student was given an “indefinite suspension” by school officials for an October 1 entry in his online journal hosted by xanga.com where he contemplated “a massive systematical killing of people at rhs for the soul purpose of saying that i can”.

First of all, I will be the first to say that posting such things in a public space (which the Internet basically is) was not the best thing to do. But, to avoid dwelling on should-have-dones in that situation, let’s assume that what’s done is done. It’s posted, and that’s all there is to it.

In addition, I do not take issue with the principal’s encountering the material in question in the first place. These online journals are accessible to the general public without a password, and thus I consider the principal to be well within his rights to look at these online journals. When someone posts to an online journal that is publicly accessible, including this one, that means that anyone can look at it, and I do mean anyone. To make my point, I had no trouble finding AnothrDmBlnd’s Xanga site, whose November 2 entry was the source of one of the comments mentioned in the article.

What troubles me is school officials’ treatment of what looks to be a completely out-of-school issue as a school disciplinary issue. The article does not mention whether or not the entries in question were posted from the school’s facilities, but from the way it’s presented, I’d hazard a guess to say it was posted outside of school. Additionally, the Web site involved is xanga.com, which is not affiliated with Augusta County Public Schools. For this, as I mentioned, the student was given an “indefinite suspension”, which is basically a politically correct way of saying “expelled”. So basically, they have ruined this student’s life by denying him an education.

Now I would like to make it clear for a moment before I delve more deeply into this discussion that I am only addressing this in the context of a school disciplinary issue. I am not going to speculate on this as a legal issue. Whether or not the student broke any laws in this case or whether or not anyone should be held criminally liable is irrelevant here.

I’ve noticed, in talking with people, as well as my own experience in high school and such, that most people in school who wish someone was dead often really simply want them out of their own life. In other words, they don’t really want the person at the bottom of the South River wearing a pair of cement shoes. Simply not seeing such a person anymore would be more than sufficient. They are out of their life, hopefully for good. Teens don’t always know to articulate that important point. And that’s an important point. I don’t believe for a minute that it was appropriate to expel this student. I also don’t believe that school officials, by expelling this student, prevented a “Columbine II”.

I am not saying that school officials, upon discovery of this journal entry, should take no action. But with this being something that took place completely outside of the school setting, treating it the same way as if it happened on school property seems inappropriate to me. I consider the discovery of the entry to be a valuable insight into the issues that the student is facing. The article states that “It also paints a picture of someone desperate for acceptance among his peers, a boy who plummets into a deep depression at any sign of rejection.” So by expelling this student, they’ve just made his problems fifty times worse, because from his standpoint, the school has just rejected him completely. This could have been used as an opportunity to help this student succeed in life, and instead, school officials squandered it, basically saying, “You have issues, so please leave and do not come back.” School is not the same as the workplace, despite countless teachers’ and administrators’ mantra that school is the students’ workplace. Students are not there to do a task and then pick up a paycheck at the end of the day. School is a place whose mission is to develop children into people who will hopefully be upstanding members of society. When a student opens up and reveals that he has problems that he’s trying to work through (although not so explicitly stated), you don’t go and fire the kid from school, which is what the school basically did with their “indefinite suspension”. As school is a place to develop individuals, you have to see it through in that context.

If I were in the shoes of Riverheads Principal Steve Barnett, I would definitely speak with the student. I’d state that while surfing the Internet, I encountered their online journal, and that what I had read caused me great concern. Then I would refer the matter to the guidance department, as a guidance counselor is more qualified to handle such issues. This person is not a ticking time bomb, with a delivery of pipe bombs and automatic weapons to the school as imminent. This is a call for help. They’re facing issues that they are having trouble dealing with, and are using their journal to help express how they feel. In addition, I feel that the comments by the student’s mother confirm my suspicions that this is harmless. The mother is quoted as saying, “He’s basically a good kid … He’s never been in any fights … never been in any trouble.” (In contrast, according to this site, Columbine gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had been arrested for theft.)

It seems that all this about handing out such harsh punishments and viewing people wearing dark clothes and listening to “metal” as suspects came to a head after the April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, in executing their mission of destruction on that fateful day, also created a new stereotype. That stereotype was the belief that anyone wearing black clothes on a regular basis is going to “go postal” one day and shoot up the place. Not long after Columbine, a friend of mine, whom I’d met two days after moving to Stuarts Draft in 1992, and had taken to wearing all-black beginning in 1997, was arrested and charged with making threats on the school after someone asked him what he would do in the same situation. He speculated, and then the rumor mill did the rest, leading to the cancellation of classes at Stuarts Draft High School on April 30, 1999. My friend, who had already turned 18, was mentioned by name with a full-color photo in both print and television media. The school basically turned him over to authorities, who let the media completely trash his reputation. Nothing ever came of the charges brought against him, as I expected. However, in the educational setting, where students are presumed guilty until proven innocent, he was expelled, with only five weeks to go until graduation. I was livid, but kept quiet about it so as not to get involved in the whole thing. Schumin Web at the time was far less refined and sophisticated than it is now, and as such didn’t get used to express my displeasure. Plus I didn’t want to get involved.

And the thing about it is that by targeting based on stereotypes, they’re reacting to perceived symptoms rather than the underlying problem, which has to do with how schools deal with harrassment and such. I remember in seventh grade, my homeroom teacher was someone who didn’t deal with such things. He would just leave things to fester until it developed into a physical altercation, and then he’d just pull them apart and send them to the office. Seventh grade was the low point in my middle school career due to this attitude on things, as I was constantly harrassed by other students, and couldn’t really defend myself for fear of starting an altercation and getting in trouble myself. And the people in charge of supervising the little miscreants didn’t do anything about it.

I wonder if Columbine would have happened if schools handled student-to-student harrassment as seriously as they handled disrespect to school faculty and staff, or as seriously as sexual harrassment. Columbine was certainly an eye-opener, but it didn’t open people’s eyes enough, as we found out in this recent News Virginian article. Schools still aren’t giving student-to-student harrassment the attention it needs, and are choosing to assign an “indefinite suspension” to people who are most in need of the resources these schools offer.

And to the anonymous Riverheads student who is having to endure this ordeal, I am completely on your side.

Web site: Article in the November 5, 2005 edition of The News Virginian, entitled "Dilemma of threats on Internet".

Song: No song - but please note that if the newspaper's site takes down the story, I have the full text of it on the forums. Feel free to join in the discussion.

Quote: Unrelated: I found that image I was hunting for, and it became the photo feature for November 5. It was on a CD for spring 2003, despite being a fall 2002 image.