Homework chain saw massacre

Sometimes an English essay can be a threat to do bodily harm.

Published May 31, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

Most kids get in trouble for not doing their homework. So why did Charles Carithers get suspended for doing his? Because, in an essay he handed in, he described the murder of the teacher who gave him the assignment.

The whole thing started when an English teacher at Boston's Latin Academy, Shital Shah, asked her junior-year high school students to write a horror story. Carithers complied -- with a story that was a little too frightening. It's about a high school student named Darius who murders his English teacher with a chain saw. "Mrs. Creed ... did everything by the book, she gave no lenience to special students or athletes ... Mrs. Creed needed to be destroyed," Carithers wrote. (In an awkward twist at the end of the story, it turns out the murder victim was not Mrs. Creed but Darius' Aunt Becky.)

Understandably, Shah felt spooked after reading the essay, particularly since Columbine couldn't have been far from her thoughts. She complained to school officials, who decided that the essay amounted to a threat to do bodily harm and therefore violated the school's disciplinary code. They sentenced Carithers to a three-day suspension, a decision that the Boston Teachers' Union supported.

"Ever since Columbine, all people in education are trying to tune into what students say or write," said Edward Doherty, president of the BTU. "And they do take threats of violence a little more seriously than they used to."

Carithers' mother, Natalie, balked at the punishment. "He did what a horror story does, which is scare you," she has said. She also has said that she thinks the suspension was "very unfair" and "extreme." She feels her son was just completing his homework and that Shah should have stated explicitly whether there was subject matter -- like the murder of an English teacher -- that was considered off-limits for the assignment.

Natalie Carithers has appealed to Boston's superintendent of schools, Thomas W. Payzant, asking him to overturn the suspension. The American Civil Liberties Union has rushed to her aid. In a statement issued April 27, John Roberts, executive director of the ACLU branch in Massachusetts, said the suspension was "a violation of the principles of free expression which the school should be jealously guarding" and called upon Payzant to annul it.

But Latin Academy is completely justified in suspending Carithers and there are two important reasons why: As a kid, he is subject to stricter laws than your average citizen; and he wrote about murdering a fictionalized version of someone he knows -- Shah.

Let's start with the first point. The fact is that the civil liberties of children (their right to form and express opinions and act on them without restriction) are frequently limited by the law. A few examples, just for starters: It is illegal for minors to do things like drink, smoke or have sex with adults. They have to go to school until they reach a certain age, whether they like it or not.

And standards of acceptable behavior dramatically restrict kids' inalienable rights on a more basic but also a more drastic level: Cultural norms dictate that kids should almost always be under some kind of adult supervision.

Children are subject to stricter rules than adults for a good reason: They are less developed than their parents -- not just physically, but also psychologically and emotionally. Children look to role models, especially teachers and parents, to demonstrate what is right and what is wrong. And when irresponsible parents -- like, some might argue, Natalie Carithers -- fail to help their children make that distinction, the burden falls all the more heavily on the teacher.

The idea that children need help distinguishing between good and evil is at the heart of a pervasive cultural norm: Children are punished for misbehavior. And a lot of times -- more often than not, probably -- kids get in trouble for things that adults do all the time, like cursing.

Carithers' mom inadvertently gave strength to this line of argument when she made the claim that Shah should have given her students detailed instructions about what they could and couldn't write. Doesn't the very assumption that underlies her statement -- that teachers can and should put restrictions on assignments and declare certain topics off-limits -- give strength to the idea that kids' civil liberties often need to be limited more than those of adults?

Sure, as Payzant said, the school should be "jealously guarding the principles of free expression." But that's only true up to a point, particularly because teachers have such a responsibility to teach kids about right and wrong.

Consider a hypothetical situation for a moment and you'll realize that institutions of learning routinely curb students' right to free expression in an effort to teach them about acceptable behavior: Imagine that one student wrote, "Johnny is a jackass" on the classroom chalkboard, referring to another student. The offender would likely be punished, perhaps suspended. And yet, if he or she were punished, his or her right to free speech would surely be infringed upon. Who would contest the punishment? Who would argue that the student should not be penalized lest his or her civil rights be violated?

Simply put, kids are subject to stricter rules than adults for the same reason that minors convicted of crimes like murder get more lenient sentences: They don't have a well-developed sense of right and wrong.

That argument on its own wouldn't be strong enough to explain why Carithers should be punished, because it's not wrong to write about murder, whether you're a kid or Stephen King. Carithers' case is different because he wrote about the murder of someone who he knew would be reading his story, which featured a murderer who sounded a lot like him.

If King did that, it would be difficult to punish him. (Might be worth a shot, though.) But one gets the impression that King wouldn't be that uninspired or threatening. Either Carithers didn't understand that his story would threaten and frighten his teacher, or he intended to threaten and frighten his teacher. Either way, he needs to learn that what he did was wrong.

Are Latin Academy and BTU officials -- and educators across America -- being so strict because they're still jumpy after Columbine? Of course they've been influenced by Columbine. But why assume that the tragedy has inspired overreaction instead of appropriate action? After all, according to the American Psychological Association, the possibility is high that children who make detailed plans to commit acts of violence will do so.

Similarly, one of the top warning signs of a troubled kid is an unusual interest in or preoccupation with weapons, bombs or violent entertainment, according to an organization called National School Safety and Security Services. What else is a story about murdering someone with a chain saw but a detailed plan to commit an act of violence and the perfect evidence that its author is unusually interested in violent entertainment?

In light of these considerations, it seems the argument to be made is not that Columbine has unnecessarily frightened teachers but, instead, that it has caused educators to be more aware and attuned to signs of psychologically disturbed kids. In fact, Latin Academy should require Carithers' mother to take him in for a psychological evaluation during his three days away from school.

Imagine that Carithers decided to write a horror story about killing himself rather than his teacher. And imagine that Shah read it, decided that Carithers had written a very horrifying story indeed and therefore satisfactorily completed his assignment. Imagine that she never mentioned it to him again and that Carithers then killed himself. Wouldn't Shah be condemned for her failure to respond to such an essay?

Of course she would. The nation would be united in its opinion that Carithers' writing was clearly a "cry for help" -- and just as united in its criticism of Shah as an irresponsible monster. So why is Latin Academy being criticized for its response to the essay he did write, which is just as much of a scream for attention?

By Maura Kelly

Maura Kelly is co-author (with Jack Murnighan) of "Much Ado About Loving: What Our Favorite Novels Can Teach You About Date Expectations, Not So-Great Gatsbys, and Love in the Time of Internet Personals."

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