School safety. In a recent appellate case, the court found that a school district did not violate a student's First Amendment rights when it expelled him for writing a poem describing a school shooting.
In the fall of 1998, James LaVine was an eleventh grade student at Blaine High School. The summer before, LaVine had written a poem, "Last Words," which described a school shooting. The poem, written in the first person, contained descriptions of slain students and the eventual suicide of the shooter. The poem read in part: "When it was all over / 28 were / dead / and all I remember / was not felling [sic] / any remorce [sic] / for I felt / I was / clensing [sic] my soul."
The poem was written shortly after a shooting at nearby Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, in which two students were killed and 25 were injured.
LaVine forgot about the poem until he found it in his room on September 30, 1998. He made some changes and brought the poem to school on Friday, October 2, and showed it to several of his friends. LaVine then decided to seek the advice of his English teacher, Vivian Bleecker. The poem was not an assignment or extra credit; LaVine asked Bleecker just to read the poem and tell him what she thought.
Bleecker read the poem that evening and became concerned. She knew little about LaVine, and her only impression of him was that he was a quiet student. The next morning, Bleecker contacted Karen Mulholland, LaVine's school counselor, and discussed the poem. Mulholland was also concerned and set up a meeting that evening with Bleecker and school vice principal Tim Haney.
At the meeting, Mulholland told the others that she frequently met with LaVine and that he had confessed to suicidal thoughts. Mulholland also confided that in the previous few weeks, LaVine had been having trouble at home. In particular, he had been assaulted by his father. LaVine had called the police and filed charges. The court had issued an order prohibiting contact between LaVine and his father, and LaVine had moved in with his adult sister.
During this same time period, LaVine's relationship with his girlfriend had ended. (Mulholland had become aware of this fact because the ex-girlfriend's mother had called the school to report that LaVine had been stalking her daughter.) Haney also reviewed LaVine's disciplinary file and found several incidents including a fight the previous February and insubordination to a teacher in March.
Given these facts, Haney decided to call LaVine's home to determine whether he would be attending a school dance the same night. James said he would not be going to the dance. As a precaution, however, Haney contacted the Blaine Police Department to warn off-duty police officers who would be patrolling the dance and to seek advice on how to proceed.
The police put Haney in touch with a community mental health center. The center referred Haney to Dr. Charles Dewitt, the psychiatrist on duty. After hearing the facts, Dewitt suggested that LaVine be picked up by police for evaluation.
A police officer was dispatched to interview LaVine. When asked about the poem, LaVine said that he often wrote poetry but that he had never written this type of poem and did not know why he had written "Last Words." LaVine and his family assured the officer that the student had no access to weapons and was not a danger to himself or others. …