Bomb note tests limits on freedom of speech

Pupil's scribbling stirs debate on what constitutes a threat

June 21, 1999|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

"Let everyone out of your school or kaboom I will blow the school sky high," the Park Elementary School sixth-grader scribbled in the notebook he held under his desk.

That day, Dec. 9, 1997, bomb scares were on the minds of Anne Arundel County pupils. Their gym was jammed with children evacuated from nearby Brooklyn Park Elementary because of a bomb threat.

Those around the boy were giggling. The teacher, suspecting he was not doing school work, asked to see his notebook, which he showed her. The result: Police charged the 11-year-old with making a false bomb threat, and he was suspended for nearly two months.

Prosecutors later dropped the charge. But the case has grown into a First Amendment and student-rights dispute in Anne Arundel Circuit Court.

The guardians of the boy, whose name has not been released because of his age, have sued the county school system, arguing that children have a constitutional freedom to express private musings in a journal-like notebook. The school system's request to have the suit dismissed is pending.

School officials maintain that it is unreasonable to think teachers and administrators would not act on what looked like a bomb threat, or that the child would not be disciplined.

"What this child did -- he committed a thought," said Marc A. Greidinger, the attorney for the boy. "I hate to think how many years I would have spent expelled from school if my principal reviewed every single document in my notebooks. I think every student is in that boat. You don't achieve anything in teaching kids when you teach them to repress their own thoughts."

Countered P. Tyson Bennett, attorney for the school board: "To say pretty much anything written in your notebook is private is absurd. What he wrote could not be interpreted any other way."

Law isn't clear

Legal experts say the issue is not as clear as either attorney sees it. As bomb scares proliferate and youthful violence turns deadly, they say schools are left to search for the dividing line between private doodlings and real threats, between harmless fantasies and public dangers, between thoughts and behaviors.

In the 1997-1998 academic year, Anne Arundel schools logged 153 bomb threats, for which 55 children were arrested.

"It's a tough issue for everyone," said Monique Clague, professor emeritus of education law and policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Adults do not want the suspension to haunt the child forever. But school officials have legitimate safety concerns, she said.

In the lawsuit filed in March, the child's guardians are asking a judge to stop the school system from expelling and suspending students "for statements that are not intended to be acted upon as bomb threats," to order the boy's discipline record expunged, and to award the child $250,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

Greidinger said the school's reaction constitutes a prior restraint on the youngster's "speech and freedom of thought," infringing on his First Amendment rights, and the suspension violated his 14th Amendment due process rights.

Principal Diane Lenzi declined to discuss the specific incident, but said, "I'd rather go the extra step, and go the length, to protect everyone in the school."

In a separate appeal, the family asked the court to overturn the suspension of the boy, who will enter eighth grade in the fall. This month, Circuit Judge Eugene M. Lerner denied the family's request to combine the two cases.

Many of the court files, including transcripts from the boy's hearing before the county school board, are sealed, but the state school board in October found no evidence that the child intended to transmit his remark to anyone. One pupil sitting near him might have seen the note, the records indicate, but it wasn't clear why the other children were giggling. The state board upheld the suspension.

The county school board's attorney has said nobody knows what the student intended, so administrators must take every threat seriously. Once the teacher saw the notebook, the school followed procedures.

Personal notebooks

Greidinger contends the boy kept a personal notebook in which he drew pictures, mused about which students might "like each other," and jotted his thoughts. That morning, to get the bomb threat thoughts out of his head, he hid the notebook in his lap under his desk, and wrote the words that got him suspended, Greidinger said. But, he argued, the content of personal notebooks is not regulated by school. He accused administrators of violating federal laws that require keeping student records private.

Police charged the boy with making a bomb threat, and he was taken to the Thomas J. S. Waxter Children's Center in Laurel, a juvenile jail, to spend the night.

Greidinger said the boy was taunted the next day, a relative became ill because of the stress, and the family became the subject of gossip.

What makes it a threat

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