In San Francisco, a high school student has been suspended for writing a poem with violent allusions and referencing the Newtown shooting. Courtni Webb’s poem was discovered by a teacher and sent to school officials, who deemed the poem posed a threat to the school’s zero tolerance policy on violence. While there is obviously a debate to be had over the issues of mixing art and free speech on a school campus, there is an underlying issue here that deserves some attention. When students write or create violent imagery or employ morbid references, what is really going on? Is it an innocent form of expression? Or is it a cry for help? How can you tell the difference, and is it safer to just assume the worst?
What’s the best way to deal with this situation for teachers and parents? What about for the student? Is there an ideal way to approach this issue so that all parties can feel safe and justified, or is punitive action the only acceptable recourse?
Ailleth Tom, Coordinator for School Mental Health, Los Angeles Unified School District; Licensed clinical social worker