Thought police in classroom?

School security: Educators must distinguish entries in a private notebook from public threats.

June 22, 1999

STUDENTS SHOULD be able to express private thoughts in diaries and journals -- no matter how outrageous -- without facing school discipline, if the musings are clearly intended to remain private.

In Anne Arundel County, a judge must decide whether a student was wrongly suspended in December 1997 when he wrote in his notebook: "Let everyone out of your school or kaboom I will blow the school sky high."

What makes this case sensitive for both sides is that the student, then in sixth grade at Park Elementary, wrote those words on a day when a false bomb threat was made at nearby Brooklyn Park Elementary -- and during a year in which Anne Arundel schools received 155 false bomb threats.

Writing about blowing up a school is most certainly a threat if the statement is sent to the school office or left in a classroom. The attorney representing the former Park Elementary student contends that the notebook, property of the student, was equivalent to a private journal.

The boy's teacher read the alleged threat after she confiscated the notebook because she suspected he was not doing his work. It was unclear whether anyone else had seen it.

Prosecutors dropped criminal charges, deciding that words are not threats unless they are transmitted with the intent to cause harm. The courts must decide whether to overturn the suspension and award damages.

As schools everywhere increase security in response to heightened concerns, from locker searchers to book-bag bans, privacy conflicts will arise.

A child's private writings about threats to anyone, including himself, demand a serious response, including counseling. But unless the child has made an attempt to harass or intimidate others or to disrupt school, he, like an adult, has a right to private expression.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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