WASHINGTON — School officials were justified in temporarilyexpelling a student who submitted a poem about a school shooting,a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
Overturning a district court decision, the U.S. Court of Appealsfor the Ninth Circuit said "the totality of the relevantfacts" surrounding James LaVine’s "emergency expulsion"indicated school officials had reason to believe the action wasnecessary to avoid disruption of the school in light of a spateof recent school shootings.
"We conclude that when the school officials expelled JamesLaVine they acted with sufficient justification and within constitutionallimits, not to punish James for the content of his poem, but toavert perceived potential harm," Judge Raymond Fisher wrotein the court’s opinion.
But the court said administrators were not justified in maintaininga record of the action in LaVine’s file after determining no threatexisted.
LaVine was expelled from Blaine High School for 17 days inOctober 1998 after he asked a teacher to look over a poem he hadwritten about a fictitious school shooting.
"I drew my gun and, threw open the door, Bang, Bang, Bang-Bang,"LaVine wrote. "When it all was over, 28 were, dead, and allI remember, was not felling [sic], any remorce [sic]."
School officials said that given LaVine’s recent history ofa number of discipline and family problems, they were concernedthat he was a danger to himself and other students. LaVine hadbeen disciplined once before for a violent act, he had a domesticdispute with his father and he was reportedly stalking an ex-girlfriend.Earlier, he had told a school official that he considered suicide.
LaVine was allowed to return to school after a psychologicalevaluation convinced administrators that he had no intention ofviolence.
Although the court said the suspension was probably unnecessary,it said the school successfully balanced LaVine’s First Amendmentrights and the district’s concern for safety.
"School officials have a difficult task in balancing safetyconcerns against chilling free expression," the court said."This case demonstrates how difficult that task can be."
The court said that it was the circumstances surrounding thepoem and not the content itself that merited the school’s reaction.Accordingly, the court ordered the school to remove mention theincident from LaVine’s disciplinary record because the feareddisruption did not occur.
"Even though we conclude that emergency expelling Jamesdid not violate the First Amendment, the same cannot be said forthe school’s placement and maintenance in James’ file of whatthe district court characterized as ‘negative documentation,’"the court said. "The school need not permanently blemishJames’ record and harm his ability to secure future employment."
The court affirmed administrators’ discretion in punishingstudents when they can reasonably forecast substantial disruption,based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in the case Tinkerv. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The courtin this case, however, emphasized that courts’ deference to schoolofficials has its limits.
"Deference does not mean abdication; there are situationswhere school officials overstep their bounds and violate the Constitution,"the court said.
Download the Ninth Circuit’s decision, including the full text of James LaVine’s poem. (You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to download this decision. To download a free version of Acrobat Reader, go to: http://www.adobe.com/products/acrobat/readstep2.html)