Poem by Washington state student about school shooting is grounds for expulsion, federal appeals court rules

School officials were justified in temporarily expelling a student who submitted to a teacher a poem about a school shooting, a federal appeals court ruled July 20.

Overturning a district court decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said “the totality of the relevant facts” surrounding James LaVine’s “emergency expulsion” indicated school officials had reason to believe the action was necessary to avoid disruption of the school in light of a spate of recent school shootings.

“We conclude that when the school officials expelled James LaVine they acted with sufficient justification and within constitutional limits, not to punish James for the content of his poem, but to avert perceived potential harm,” Judge Raymond Fisher wrote in the court’s opinion.

But the court said administrators were not justified in maintaining a record of the action in LaVine’s file after determining he posed no threat.

LaVine was expelled from Blaine High School for 17 days in October 1998 after he asked a teacher to look over a poem he had written about a fictitious school shooting.

School officials said that given LaVine’s recent history of a number of discipline and family problems, they were concerned that he was a danger to himself and other students. LaVine had been disciplined once before for a violent act, he had had a domestic dispute 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 psychological evaluation convinced administrators that he had no intention of violence.

Although the court said the suspension was probably unnecessary, it said the school successfully balanced LaVine’s First Amendment rights and the district’s concern for safety.

“School officials have a difficult task in balancing safety concerns 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 the poem and not the content itself that merited the school’s reaction. Accordingly, the court ordered the school to remove mention the incident from LaVine’s disciplinary record because the feared disruption did not occur.

“Even though we conclude that emergency expelling James did not violate the First Amendment, the same cannot be said for the school’s placement and maintenance in James’ file of what the district court characterized as ‘negative documentation,'” the court said. “The school need not permanently blemish James’ record and harm his ability to secure future employment.”

The court affirmed administrators’ discretion in punishing students when they can reasonably forecast substantial disruption, based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in the case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. The court in this case, however, emphasized that courts’ deference to school officials has its limits.

“Deference does not mean abdication; there are situations where school officials overstep their bounds and violate the Constitution,” the court said.

Case: LaVine v. Blaine School Dist., 257 F.3d 981 (9th Cir. 2001)