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Wednesday, 20 February 2013 13:58

From rap lyrics to bathroom graffiti, schools get tough on threats from students

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In a new state of high alert, schools face tough choices when confronted by a threat from a student: is it a precursor to real violence or simply the empty words of imprudent children?

 

School officials were forced to make that call only days after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting last December. Two students at Macon Middle School were in the bathroom together and decided to write on the wall that a similar event would take place at their school, school officials reported. The boys, ages 13 and 14, even provided a specific time and date.

Another student reported the message to school faculty, and soon, the school was shutdown and the middle school-aged culprits were found, arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center, said Macon County Sheriff Robbie Holland.

They were charged with felony counts of communicating threats of mass destruction and even coughed up a confession, Holland said. Their cases are currently pending in court.

“Both boys admitted to their actions,” Holland said. “And said it was nothing more than a prank.”

Although Holland was sympathetic to them he said the world has changed, in the new age of school shootings, and threat of violence shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“You hate to use kids as an example, but we felt we had to do that,” Holland said.

And even though the pencil scribbles on the bathroom wall took minutes to wipe off, the alleged prank is bound to leave a lasting mark on the teens’ educational future.

Most likely they will be excluded from returning to Macon Middle School or any school events, said Macon School Superintendant Jim Duncan. And, if they become convicted felons, reentering any part of the public school system could be difficult — although a supervised home school setting or attending a publicly-run alternative school could be possibilities.

In situations such as this, Duncan said the administration is a put in a difficult place deciding how to handle two students who made a juvenile mistake. Moreover, neither had been so much as suspended in the past, but their actions caused widespread fear among parents and students.

The day following the incident was the highest day of absenteeism since the school year began, with concerned parents keeping their students home from school.

“That is the line that we walk everyday in the public school system,” Duncan said. “The very minute you don’t take something like that serious you run the risk of it being real, and then you can’t say you’re sorry enough.”

 

Rap lyrics gone awry

Meanwhile, parents of a Waynesville Middle School student Caleb Webb, 14, claim the administration went too far in suspending their special needs son for violent rap lyrics.

According to the parents, their son had written a verse of rap lyrics and posted them to a social media site over winter break. The lyrics made mention of walking into the club with a .38 magnum.

His parents said the posts were read by several of Webb’s classmates, although they were not intended as threats to anyone. But after Webb returned to school from break, he was called into an assistant principal’s office and told that his lyrics, and similar messages sent to the phones of two classmates, were inappropriate.

He was not suspended, but, later that day, Webb returned to his classes and reportedly talked about going to an uncle’s house to get an AK-47 and threw balled up pieces of paper at classmates saying that each one was like a bullet.

The school system did a risk assessment for Webb, along with his own therapist, and he was deemed a low risk for violence against others, according to documentation provided by the parents. Regardless, he was suspended for the remainder of the school year for “communicating threats.”

What frustrated Webb’s parents was that much of their son’s behavior could be attributed to his Asperger’s disorder. Many of the Asperger symptoms are characterized by a difficulty to know what is socially appropriate and when to stop certain behavior.

“He gets angry and he’ll say things off the wall because he has Asperger’s,” said Mark Webb, Caleb’s father. “It may be his feelings, but it may be perceived in a different way.”

The family obtained a lawyer and appealed their case to the school board and superintendant, which reduced the suspension to 20 days.

But the situation made Mark Webb concerned about how administrators are reacting to any type of violent speech, especially in the age of easily replicable social media and in cases of special needs children.

“It opened my eyes,” Mark Webb said. “That when you do an investigation like this you have to have more than social media and text messages before you start suspending them for communicating threats.”

 

Cross burning case pending

Meanwhile, three Tuscola High Students, charged with felonies for burning a cross in the yard of a house where a biracial classmate was having a sleepover, have remained in school pending convictions. If an alleged crime is committed off-campus, policy allows suspected students to stay in school until they are convicted in court.

One of the three pleaded guilty in court last week, and now 17-year-old Matthew Wyatt Mitchell will be kicked out of school due to his status as a convicted felon. He could appeal to the school board for an exception, but “I have never seen that leniency applied to a felon,” said Haywood Superintendent Dr. Anne Garrett.

When it comes to threats, however, Garrett said there is not a “one-size-fits-all policy,” but each case has to be assessed on its own merits.

Official school guidelines have suggested punishments, but principals, administrators and the school board have discretion.

For example, when a bomb threat was called into Tuscola High School earlier this year, the student responsible for the threat was expelled. But the six-year-old who brought a knife to school was handled very differently.

“You’re talking about a six-year-old,” she said. “We’ve had a pretty safe year other than the bomb threat.”

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