Educators Are Quicker to Discipline
Jun. 25, 1998
Raymond Granillo likes creepy, scary tales. So when the Arizona 15-year-old wrote a story for class about his teacher and a janitor being killed by a prison escapee, he says that's ALL it was _ a story.
Karen Carnell gets angry sometimes. So when she had a spat with another seventh-grader in Delaware, she told her if someone shot at her, no one could miss her big forehead. The 13-year-old says that's ALL it was _ an insult.
But for school officials, tense over recent spasms of student violence, that's not all it was. Both teens were tossed out of class.
In the school year now ending, the awful images of fresh-faced kids accused of monstrous acts in Jonesboro, Ark., and Springfield, Ore., taught educators some hard lessons. Many responded by adopting a ``zero tolerance'' approach toward kids who threaten, talk or even tease about violence.
Their philosophy: Better safe than sorry.
``In light of what has been going on around the country, we want to take any perceived or real threat seriously,'' says Fred Coates, assistant superintendent at the Chandler, Ariz., school district where Raymond was suspended for nine days.
Raymond's father, Albert, sees it differently.
``We believe it's totally unfair,'' he says. ``This kid has an imagination. He loves to write.''
His son, he insists, is no threat: ``I love him dearly, but he's a little wimp.''
Raymond, an eighth-grader who loves Stephen King books, was in tears when he was suspended. He says he tried to set the record straight.
``I told them it was a story, that it wouldn't really happen and that I felt bad about it,'' he says. ``Why would they suspend you for a dumb story?''
Educators say they have struggled over the issue of where to draw the line between vigilance and overreaction, between free speech and real threats, between childish boasts and imminent danger.
Some argue it's best to err on the side of caution.
``Kids are more violent than they've ever been, they're more likely to talk about violence than in the past, and the schools, sad to say, are an increasing target,'' says Charles Patrick Ewing, author of ``Kids Who Kill'' and a professor of law and psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
``The real danger is people will say that's gossip, that's a rumor and do nothing,'' he adds. If kids miss school for a day or two during a suspension, ``I don't see anything lost.''
Others argue that hysteria has clouded common sense and good judgment, victimizing kids and exaggerating the scope of the problem.
``Schools are one of the safer places in the country,'' says Joe Cook, director of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. ``They're probably safer than some of the communities these kids come out of.''
Discipline problems that would have been resolved a few years ago in the quiet of a principal's office may now end up in court or a police station _ and on the front pages.
``Before all this happened, we treated kids like kids,'' says George Dugan, a Florida attorney who represented an 11-year-old boy who carried gasoline in his book bag and allegedly bragged about a plan to blow up his school. ``Now you have kids shooting other kids, and everybody is standing back saying, `Whoa!' ''
On Monday, the boy was sentenced to a residential treatment facility after pleading guilty to threatening to use a destructive device. The program generally lasts four to six months.
In the last few months, dozens of kids have been suspended or charged by police, some on the basis of mere rumors, others on tangible, troubling evidence.
_ In Vancouver, Wash., a 6-year-old boy was suspended for a day after a staff member overheard him say he planned to bring a gun to school. His father called the punishment paranoia.
_ In Jackson Township, Ohio, a 9-year-old girl was charged with aggravated menacing after she allegedly told a classmate who didn't want to be her friend, ``If I had a shotgun, I would shoot you.'' Police said they couldn't take any chances.
_ In Parsippany, N.J., a 13-year-old boy was found by school authorities to have compiled a list of 20 classmates and teachers on a manila folder titled, ``People I Would Want to Be Gone.'' He was placed under house arrest, charged with harassment and making terrorist-like threats, and ordered to undergo psychiatric counseling. Two guns were seized from the house although the teen-ager had no access to them.
_ In Carol Stream, Ill., a 15-year-old was charged with solicitation to commit murder after he allegedly plotted to kill classmates. Investigators believe he tried to recruit another teen in the mistaken belief the other boy had access to his father's guns.
_ In Cheshire, Conn., 11 juniors and seniors were suspended for contributing to an issue of their underground newspaper, ``Eyesight to the Blind,'' that contained a column the superintendent said was tantamount to a death threat.
On Monday, an 18-year-old was charged with harassment and breach of peace after being identified as the author of the column that declared one teacher ``needs a serious attitude adjustment, possibly by a hollow-point .45 to the head.''
Kids simply have to learn to measure their words carefully now, officials say.
``Years ago it used to be a joke, you'd go into an airport and say you've got a bomb in your suitcase, ha-ha-ha,'' says John Numrich, police chief in Carol Stream, a Chicago suburb. ``Now I think the same thing is going to happen with people who say they're taking a gun to school.
``It's not a joke. It's not funny. We've had too many tragedies.''
But some parents argue that talk is sometimes talk _ and nothing more.
Christine Carnell, who lives in Bear, Del., is still angry that her daughter, Karen, had to leave the Caravel Academy, a private school.
Karen's troubles began when she lashed out at a girl she said called her ``poor and stupid.''
Karen's response: ``Your eyes are so far apart that if I could shoot you or somebody else would, they wouldn't be able to miss your forehead.''
``I was just angry,'' she now says, adding that she never mentioned a gun. ``Her eyes ARE very far apart. And I had nothing else to say.''
Ms. Carnell says if this had happened two years ago, it would have all been resolved in a school meeting with the girl's parents. Instead, she says, when she met with a school official and ``he compared my daughter to the children of Arkansas, I hit the roof. I am not one to have weapons.''
Karen finished the last two months of school at home; she'll attend public school this fall.
School lawyer Dick Kirk defends the action, echoing others who say threats must be taken seriously. ``They'd be fools not to.''
Ralph Wallace, superintendent of the Cheshire schools, where the 11 teens were suspended, agrees.
``Maybe five to 10 years ago, you'd say, `That's just kids.' Today our view of what kids can do is so sadly contorted, we react differently ... .''
``In my heart of hearts, I couldn't imagine it happening here,'' he adds. ``But every time you see someone on TV, what do you hear them say? `I didn't believe it could happen here.' ''