The Associated Press, May 9, 1999
ACLU Targets Nervous School Heads
CLEVELAND (AP) -- Eleven students are suspended for putting a satirical essay on their personal Web site. A teen-ager is sent to the police station for wearing black clothing. A student is interrogated about the chemistry book he's carrying.
Across the nation, American Civil Liberties Union offices say they're being swamped by complaints that nervous school officials are trampling students' constitutional rights since the April 20 shootings in Littleton, Colo.
``It seems to have become a witch hunt. I'm sure we've gotten hundreds of phone calls,'' said Ann Beeson, a staff attorney at the ACLU's national headquarters in New York. ``Most school officials are not aware or not focusing on the fact that students are citizens, too.''
Greg Daniels of the ACLU in Ohio said the most serious of more than two dozen complaints to his office involved 11 students from Brimfield, a small town about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland. The students had a Web site for the Gothic subculture of youths who wear black, listen to rocker Marilyn Manson and think a lot about death.
The two Colorado gunmen embraced some Goth trappings but also exhibited racist attitudes and violence that most in the Goth world reject.
The Web site, filled with images of dragons and castles and dark poetry, had been created months before the Littleton shootings but was updated with comment on the massacre. The students called gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fellow ``freaks'' and sarcastically praised them.
One statement read: ``I wonder how long it'll be before we're allowed to wear our trenchcoats anymore. You know those screwed up kids in Colorado were wearing them, so that means I will also kill someone, and so will all my friends.''
Timm Mackley, the school district's superintendent, said the Web site was obscene and had a threatening tone. He suspended the students, but the ACLU successfully fought their expulsion.
``The students were engaging in protected speech, off campus,'' Daniels said. ``The school says they can punish them for that type of speech and behavior. What's next? Regulating conversations off campus?''
A consultant on school security cautioned that while there may be some overreaction, heightened awareness now may be uncovering real threats that predate Littleton, as well as ``spinoff-type incidents.''
``We keep getting asked the question, `Is Littleton a wake-up call?' My question is, are we going to hit the snooze button and go to sleep?'' said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.
``Firm, fair and consistent enforcement of school rules and the law'' is the only recourse for school administrators, Trump said Friday.
ACLU officials said most of the complaints they're hearing deal with teens getting in trouble for wearing trenchcoats or dressing in black. Some other cases:
-- A 13-year-old Arizona boy was given in-school detention for carrying an electronics magazine with ads for guns. The boy was arrested when he drew a cartoon showing the school blowing up.
-- A 14-year-old Pennsylvania girl was suspended for telling a teacher in a class conversation on the Littleton shootings that she could understand how someone who is teased endlessly could snap.
-- An Illinois student was questioned by a psychiatrist for 1 1/2 hours about the video games he plays and asked if he ever looks for bomb-making instructions on the Internet.
``It really scares me. Anybody who doesn't fit into a specific category or dresses differently or is considered a nerd or a geek, all of a sudden they're a suspect. The students are losing their constitutional rights,'' said Andy Brumme, staff counsel for the ACLU in South Carolina.
Brumme represented a 17-year-old North Augusta, S.C., student who was suspended for criticizing his principal and ROTC teachers at Midland Valley High School. On his personal Web page, he told ROTC teachers to ``eat feces and die.''
School administrators had talked to the teen about the Web site before but didn't take action until after the Colorado shootings.
``It's ludicrous to think that's a threat,'' Brumme said. ``People are reacting instead of thinking.'' Brumme said the student had a good case but agreed to remove the criticism and apologize so he could graduate and go on to college this fall.
Brumme said he was considering filing a complaint after police searched three suburban Columbia high school students who were sent to the principal's office for wearing all black. He said one of the students was asked why he was carrying a chemistry book.
``Schools are saying that school safety comes first and students' rights second. That's wrong,'' said Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the ACLU in Arizona.