A student at a public high school in Plainfield, IL, a far southwest suburb of Chicago, faces an expulsion hearing next week. Not so meaningful in itself, perhaps, so let me trickle out the details.
The hearing has been called because the student posted on his blog at xanga.com that his district, District 202, had bullied and threatened him. The ACLU has insinuated itself into the controversy.
At this point, the meaning of the hearing begins to clarify: the student is being, if not persecuted, at least being made an example of. Schools have recently become aware of MySpace and Xanga, and are increasingly adopting policies that allow them to influence the content of student web pages. This student, it would seem, may be simply be a victim of poor timing, falling between the period when students believed they could say anything and the period when students understood that officials at their school be checking their site.
Now let's add this: on May 2 the student wrote, without mentioning the school by name, that "I feel threatened by you, I cant even have a public Web page with out you bullying me and telling me what has to be removed." He added in the same letter, "Did you ever stop to think this will start a community backlash? The kids at Columbine did what the did because they were bullied.... In my opinion you are the real threat here."
The meaning of the hearing thus sharpens further. The school, perhaps prematurely, has decided that the above quote constitutes a threat. I have to say that if the student didn't understand the implication of the above statements, then perhaps the school should reconsider the nature of it's English curriculum: the student is laying out for the district, the primary audience of a public letter, the events that might follow should the school not leave him alone. Those events contemplate violence against the school community. Further, the statements treat those events as the inevitable result of a bully's actions and as events for which the student cannot be held responsible. While American school officials have not distinguished themselves in recent years with regard to sensibly responding to potential threats, in this case a hearing about the student's words seems reasonable.
Now that a possible motive behind the hearing has been discerned, another detail. The student, after writing the above letter, had been suspended for 10 days. The mother angrily asked whether the school, since they seemed to think her son was such a threat, had contacted the FBI. The school said no. She then asked if they had contacted the Joliet police, and again the school said no.
So now, it seems to me, we are back to a victim-of-circumstance explanation. The school has decided that they need to draw a line, and given the extremity of his statements this student provides them with an arguably valid excuse to set policy.
The above is described in the Sun-Times. It adds some blather from the kid's ACLU attorney and some comments from a police officer about the difficulty police have discerning aggressive chest-thumping from legitimate threats.
I have no particularly strong opinion about the case. I suspect the student is a bit of a troublemaker who has discovered painfully that his actions might cause reactions that he cannot control, that authorities, when barked at loudly enough, may bite back. And what he is threatened with, contrary to his attorney's claims, is not really a threat to the foundations of free speech. If expelled, and at this point it is still an "if", his education can still continue; prison expulsion is not.
Still, I can't help but sympathize with his predicament. I find it hard to believe that he really meant harm. He is an ordinary example of a teenage male impressing himself upon the world with loud, aggressive words. All that is extraordinary is that people responsible for his safety and that of all of classmates have decided to take those words seriously.
The article did not mention the student's name, probably because he is a minor. This has the effect of preventing us from knowing about events prior to the May 2 letter mentioned above, as well as a related post from the day before. Both are clearly responses to a demand from his school that he remove something previously posted on his blog. Since we don't know what he was asked to remove, we can't really evaluate the character of his May 2 letter. I would have a radically different impression of the entire case if the school had asked him to remove a swastika than I would if they had asked him to remove merely typical, teenage, hyper-masculine babble.
The nearest I could come to finding the student was this blog of a Plainfield student. The student references the case in this
May 4 post, where she refers to the student facing expulsion as her brother. The article only briefly describes the May 1 post while quoting from the May 2 post. The blogger has a May 1 post that suggests to me she was also targeted by policy announced that day at their school or in days previous.
I'll close with the May 4 post from the blogger that I was able to find, including all the errors that were in the original. If there is any indictment to be brought in this case, it is of this girl's English teachers:
dear plainfield south or district 202,
now that my brother isnt in school for the time being you must guess that everything is going to stop...your wrong...we dont stand down...as americans we have the right to speek our mind...as a matter of fact i think that im going to speek mine now on what i think about south...south is a school were they think that they have control over the world...wrong! they think that they can go around and acuse people of threatening us...hmm is saying if you dont take that post down we will be forced to suspened you...well then do it...your not scary...how is it that you can read our xanga's anyways...they are blocked at school grounds...hmmm which means that you took the time out of your personal lives to look and see what we are doing...kinda stupied move if you ask me...go ahead suspened me and prade around the school "the bad kids are gone. we wont ruin our perfect school code." you just dont want your school to be in the news about everthing that is wrong with it...for example...your dress code is violated everyday and yet you put the people who dont show skin all the time in CONTROL CENTER...hmm sounds like your only punishing a few...if someone isnt fallowing the school code then take action...dont take action on thoughs who do it once...i see girls with skirts up to their butts and they will walk right by a dean, asistant principle, or hall monitior without complaint...fix what you made wrong...all you want to do is pin point people...go ahead and suspened thoughs that speek out...we will always know that we are right and you arent...no matter what i say you cant stop me...
i hate plainfield south they are a bunch of power hungry witch hunters...
UPDATE: I was looking at some of the people who this blogger lists as her friends (hoping to find the blogger discussed in the article), and I discovered some interesting things. It would seem hate mail in the form of open letters to school officials is quite de rigueur in Plainfield.
First, this post from April 27 which includes this quite intriguing sentence: "Mrs. Mekenzie, or however the fuck you spell your name, doesnt matter becuase you suck at life anyway, i hate you too, and you know what, it really was magic that started that fire. MMAAAAGIC." This student then expresses the hope that the aforementioned lady will soon die. On May 1 he wrote the following:
well, no school for 14 days. exactly what i needed. seriously. this is exactly what i needed. but therepy. . .ehhhh
I'm thinking suspension.
The next on the list was the blog of an extremely well spoken Christian student who was also on that blogger's list. Several others in that list were similarly well spoken and articulate.
Then, after a few more blogs, I decided to try a search for the quotes from the article. When I first started the post I had done such a search but didn't get a meaningful result, but I tried again, this time searching for a whole string from the quote and not just keywords. Jackpot.
Here is his blog, here is the May 2 post cited by the article, and here is the May 1 post. The blog also includes a "Suport Our Troops" chain-post that a number of blogs from these students contained.
The May 1 post included a reference to another student's suspension due to what he had included on his Xanga site; the names and dates don't seem to line up, so I don't think it's the same student as above, but I could be mistaken. While vulgar, the May 1 post is not really all that much besides one student venting. The May 2 post, though, is not misrepresented in the Sun-Times article. Prior to that, the blog is extraordinarily ordinary. It seems the kid is included in part of a crackdown, one that probably started after the fire he mentions, and that he has the benefit of an ACLU lawyer pursuing an aggressive PR strategy.
I said that my opinion of the case would vary accoriding to what he wrote prior to May 1. It's my peronal opinion that he probably shouldn't be expelled because he seems to a kid whose bark is worse than his bute. It's also my opinion that he won't be expelled, since this all seemed to start with some kids starting a real fire, kids who didn't themselves get expelled. But we'll see; the PR may backfire.
Here is one last post that describes what seemed to start all this excitement on Xanga, by a student who himself seems to have been suspended:
so yea as some ppl know goldy, kyle, miles.
goldy wants a vacation...from school.
kyle got suspened for lighting the b-room on fire and then suspened from the accadimy from putting a pic of the acc. buring down. on his OWN COMPUTER!!
miles wrote a letter to the school. and said to kiss his ass. well its the computer and im going 2 say what the usa is free ....freadom....freadom of speach. FIRST FUCKING ADMENDMENT.
UPDATE 2: Out of curiosity, I looked up the school report card for Plaifield South High School, which is the school where these events took place.
The school's average ACT scores are around 19. They are about a half-point below the average of the four high schools in the district, and about a point below the average for the state. Nationally, the average ACT score is usually between 20 and 21.
In Illinois, there are four performance levels used to judge students at a school. From lowest to highest, they are "Academic Warning", "Below Standards", "Meets Standards", and "Exceeds Standards". At Plainfield South, 45% of students were at the lowest two levels in reading, 57% percent were at the lowest two for math, and 53% were at the lowest two for science.
I have seen the test that is used to place these students in these categories. In fact, it is pretty much my job to be an expert at these tests. I can assure you that the phrase "Below Standards" does not do justice to the amount of ignorance required to achieve that rating.
There are 2,805 students at the school. (It has always struck me as insane, all of these giant high schools we have in this country.) The school is 72% white, 16% hispanic, 7% black, and 5% other.
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