Bullying and Harassment: A Legal Guide for Educators

By Kathleen Conn | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SIX
Student Threats and Violence
in Schools

ALTHOUGH MANY EDUCATORS MAY FEEL HARD-PRESSED TO DEFINE A [threat,] most are confident that they would recognize one when it occurs. Problems often arise, however, when school personnel try to take legal action against students whom they perceive as making threats to harm others. A student who uses what appears to be threatening language simply may be exercising a First Amendment right to express an opinion, a right protected from governmental interference or suppression, even in the school setting. Under the United States legal system, what a reasonable educator might categorize as a threat may or not be a [true threat] under the law.

At a Washington, D.C., political rally in August 1966, an 18year-old unhappy with his 1-A draft classification declared, [If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ,] referring to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. The young man, Robert Watts, was charged with and convicted of a felony under a federal statute that makes it a crime to [willfully and knowingly] threaten the president. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction three years later in what became the seminal Court decision distinguishing between threats and [true threats.] Recognizing a [profound national commitment to … debate on public issues,] including speech that may be [vehement, caustic, and unpleasantly

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