`Committing a thought' a stretch for suspension


June 27, 1999|By Norris West

TEACHERS AND administrators at Park Elementary School in Brooklyn Park had no clear guidelines to follow in 1997 when they suspended a sixth-grader for scribbling a message the boy claims was his private musing but which they judged to be a bomb threat.

The Anne Arundel Public Schools' disciplinary policy does not define what constitutes a threat, so officials had to rely on their judgment.

The closest thing to a standard for educators in deciding what is or is not a threat is the school system's policy on assault. It describes an assault as an act that causes an individual harm or to leads him to believe he is in imminent danger.

Common-sense definition?

Neither definition seems to apply in this case. While "common sense" on a case-by-case basis may sound like the logical way to define threatening acts and behaviors, the Park Elementary case shows why that standard leaves so much gray area.

When a clear definition is elusive, teachers have to make judgment calls, as do students.

That is why the case of the former Park Elementary student, unidentified because he is a minor, is in court.

The boy's parents have sued the Anne Arundel County school system in Circuit Court to expunge their child's suspension and to obtain monetary damages.

Attorneys for the boy and the school disagree on some of the facts, and there is plenty of disagreement on how to interpret what facts they agree on.

Agree and disagree

Agreed is that the boy imprudently wrote, "Let everyone out of your school or kaboom I will blow the school sky high" in his notebook on a day when his former school's gym was filled with students from neighboring Brooklyn Park Elementary. The neighboring school had been evacuated because of a false bomb threat.

Not agreed is whether the boy meant for the writing to be perceived as a threat. It also is not agreed that he wanted anyone else to see it.

Agreed is that "there was no evidence to support an intent to transmit the note," as stated in the opinion by the Maryland State Board of Education, which upheld the decision to suspend the boy.

Not agreed is whether the boy had a right to scribble whatever he wanted in a notebook he considered private, so it was equivalent to a journal or diary.

His teacher confiscated the book when she heard giggling in the boy's area. She surmised that he was paying attention to something other than his classwork. Upon reading the sentence in the notebook, she sent him to the principal's office.

The court must determine the facts in this difficult case. A good talk with a counselor might have straightened out this matter without so much fanfare.

Schools ought to have a compelling reason before infringing on a student's privacy. Unlike a real or false bomb threat, the act of scribbling a private thought intended to be kept to oneself -- no matter how strange -- deserves protection, as the Supreme Court has found during the past 35 years.

`Getting' Reagan

In 1987, the high court ruled that the constitutional rights of a law enforcement employee were violated when she was dismissed after she was overheard expressing hope that someone would "get" Ronald Reagan after the 1981 attempt on his life.

"A purely private statement on a matter of public concern will rarely, if ever, justify discharge of a public employee," the court ruled.

Back home, local prosecutors dropped delinquency charges against the boy because it was clear to them that a statement is not a threat unless it is communicated to someone else.

Schools officials did not answer a key question: What was the boy's intent in writing the note?

It said only that insufficient evidence existed to support a conclusion that he intended to transmit his message.

The school board's opinion stated, "The fact that [the student's] bomb threat note was not transmitted may mean that he did not commit a crime." This seems to suggest that the board agrees that this was not a bomb threat. And if not, he was disciplined for a nonthreat, not too far from his attorney's description that he "committed a thought."

The county school board said its determination that the note was not a threat "does not mean, however, that his actions should be without consequence."

It referred to a previous state board ruling on employee misconduct that says certain behaviors are "so patently inappropriate as to require no formal prohibition to discipline."

Nothing is inappropriate about writing a note to oneself. The Supreme Court would appear to protect his right to privacy and, perhaps, free speech. Of course, if the boy had flashed an obvious threat to the classroom, that would be another matter.

Anne Arundel schools should think before violating privacy rights, and come up with a workable definition of "threat."

Norris P. West is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County. His e-mail address is norris.west@baltsun.com.

Pub Date: 6/27/99

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