TORONTO — There should have been an easier way for the Canadian teenager identified only as "the young Cornwall author" to become a headliner at an event sponsored by the Ottawa International Writers' Festival this weekend.
Within days of performing for his 11th-grade drama class a monologue he had written about a harassed student preparing to blow up his school, the young author, from a village near Cornwall, Ontario, was arrested, strip-searched, and incarcerated.
His detention lasted 34 days - through his 16th birthday as well as the Christmas and New Year's holidays. He's out of jail on $2,500 bail now, but has become a cause celebre here.
His case, and others like it, show how North American schools and families continue to struggle with "zero tolerance" policies on violence in the wake of the 1999 massacre in Littleton, Colo. It also illustrates just how fragile the civil liberties of a troubled young man can be.
One of Canada's best-
known human rights lawyers, Clayton Ruby, is defending the boy, who cannot be identified in print. And some of the leading lights of the Canadian literary establishment, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, have rallied to his cause.
The bumper-sticker version of the story is that he was arrested because nervous school officials took his presentation, entitled "Twisted," as a bomb threat. But the reality is more complex.
Maurice Green, counsel for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, says it is "simply not true" that the boy was arrested because of the monologue. The drama teacher "was an experienced enough teacher to sense that this wasn't just acting. He felt ... that he was speaking from the heart. He could feel the chill in his students" in the room as the piece was recited.
The teacher sought the boy out at lunchtime to see whether he wanted to talk. He didn't.
About a week later, according to Mr. Green, three girls from the drama class complained that the boy had made death threats to them. It's not clear that the "death threats" were anything more than adolescent sarcasm in response to what the boy considered inane questions: "Am I on your hit list?" "Yeah, sure, you're on my hit list." But a police investigation ensued, and the boy's home was searched. A copy of the incriminating monologue was printed from his computer and seized as evidence. Although no explosives or other bombmaking materials were found, the boy was taken to a juvenile detention center.
But it didn't stop there.
His 14-year-old brother is "developmentally disabled," says the family's lawyer, Frank Horn, and started getting "harassed" by other students after the older boy's notoriety spread. The brother was arrested Dec. 22 on similar charges, and was just released on Monday.
"The family has finally had Christmas," says Neil Wilson, director of the Ottawa International Writers' Festival, which is holding a fundraiser for the older boy this Sunday. "They put the tree back up, got the presents out."
The picture that emerges from interviews with school officials and lawyers involved is one of a troubled family with a troubled son - an outsider, new to the school, and small for his age. He has theatrical aspirations, but also speech problems that make him the butt of teasing - and bullying. It's this bullying that, in the view of the boys' lawyers, is the missing piece of the puzzle.
"The real problem is that about a week before the monologue, [the older boy] was beaten up by a gang of kids," says Mr. Horn. "My client was swarmed by 10 to 12 kids. His mother met with the vice principal of the school and the [Ontario Provincial Police] representative to complain about her son being beaten up, but nothing was done."
It was only after "all hell broke loose," says Horn, when the monologue episode became public, that the police started investigating the family's complaint.
"The school was utterly insensitive to the problems of bullying," says Mr. Ruby. "The bullies were the established students in the school," he charges. "Their victim was the new kid."
Across North America there have been numerous cases of class writings - or in some cases drawings - being taken as threats. In the months following the Columbine shootings, at least five US students in different schools were suspended, and some faced criminal charges. Last spring, a Boston student was suspended for three days after fulfilling an assignment to write a horror story. His story involved the killing of a fictitious teacher.
In Canada, the treatment accorded the two brothers has attracted attention from civil libertarians. A. Alan Borovoy, counsel for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, says, "The police and the attorney general owe the public an explanation as to why it was necessary to arrest them and detain them. If they know something we don't know, then they ought to tell us what it is." Says Ruby, "We wouldn't do this to an adult."
The "young Cornwall author" is to read his two-page monologue this weekend at the Writers' Festival event, being held with the support of 20 prominent Canadian writers. "We're not trying to blame teachers, and we're not going to blame the police," says Mr. Wilson, director of the festival. "But there's been a miscarriage of justice here."
We're hoping to find a writer or two who would be willing to go to his home and mentor him," he adds, since the boy is suspended from school. Wilson says the young writer "did what we counsel all the time: If you've got problems, write about them."
Sandra Martin, president of PEN Canada, an international organization of writers, makes a similar point: "We want people to use words, not weapons. Writing is a way out of trouble for many writers. But schools are so worried about preventing a Columbine ... that they're obliged to overreact. There's not much room for common sense."
"The kid is speaking for a lot of kids," says lawyer Horn of his young client. "This has really reverberated. It struck a chord."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society