Teens Talking Threats

Efforts to stop school shootings are critical, but they can raise additional issues. Perhaps none is more difficult than this: How can schools, and parents, teach youngsters the fundamental value of free speech, even as they emphasize the dangers in making verbal threats of physical harm?

One result of the shootings has been heightened alertness to what kids are saying to each other, or writing in their e-mails. In Smithtown, N.Y., for example, an e-mail from a previously suspended eighth-grader about bringing a gun to school brought near panic to parents who heard about the message. It also brought the police to the e-mailer's home to search for weapons.

None were found, but the community was thrown into turmoil for a couple of days, and administrators had a major challenge convincing families that the problem had been dealt with and the schools were safe.

In others communities, students have been suspended for threatening gun violence against one another on school buses or in hallways. Several states have passed laws requiring schools to crack down on verbal assaults or bullying language. On rare occasions follow-up investigations have shown that guns or bombmaking materials were indeed in the possession of the youngster making the threat.

School officials have little choice, given the level of concern about violence, but to take every threatening word as the possible precursor of actual mayhem. Students - like travelers going through airport security checks - are learning that even off-hand words about using guns or wishing someone dead can be taken only one way: seriously.

In today's atmosphere of concern, such words fall within Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes's famous exception to the First Amendment: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."

That important line of reasoning may be a starting point for principals or superintendents. Their task, along with teachers and parents, is to instill in exuberant teenagers the thought that while they have no more precious right than freedom of expression, they have to use it responsibly.

They have to realize that threats and bullying are not acceptable. And that even the flurry of e-mails and instant messages they unleash every evening could have unforeseen consequences.

Educators and parents, meanwhile, have to be willing to swim counter to the current of harsh and violent imagery in today's entertainment media and try to take the younger generation along with them.

A tough assignment, but worth taking on.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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