Middle school essay leads to suspension
Raphael Cox was 13-years-old and a student at Warwick Valley Middle School in New York. He had a history of misbehavior at school resulting in several meetings with the principal and his parents.
In 2007, Raphael’s English teacher required the class to write essays on a variety of topics. One of Raphael’s first stories was titled “Perfection” where he described what he considered a “perfect day.” He wrote about a helicopter with machine guns that destroyed a town. He explained that “That’s when I’m mad or just in a regular mood.”
A few months later, Raphael wrote an essay he called “Racing Time.” He understood the assignment as writing about what he would do if he had 24 hours to live. Raphael’s essay follows just as he wrote it:
“I usually get this question a lot and every time its something different. But I won’t lie about anything. First I would go and gather all my friends somehow violently or peacefully then rent the biggest yacht in the world and head over to the Carribean and then we would go sky diving and then we would all be downstairs drinking the finest rum, vodka, gin, and scotch and get fully intoxicated on the beach wathing the sun set and moon rise and then we would start to smoke ciggeretts, cigars, and let’s just say illegal things in the U.S. Then I myself would be doing Acid and Coke and then climb palm trees and blasting Pink Floyd and all sorts of my favorite music. Then right before I would finally die I would try to say goodbye and then take one of my favorite pistols the Kugar and then put it in my mouth with a Cyanide pill and the shoot myself and then everyone would party for a week for me. Like I said I don’t leave easily.” (emphasis added)
Although Raphael didn’t share his essay with classmates, his teacher was alarmed and showed it to the principal. Other administrators were consulted which resulted in a brief in-school suspension while the situation was investigated. A meeting was scheduled with his parents and the principal became concerned that they weren’t taking his problems seriously. He notified the state Department of Children and Family Services. A caseworker was assigned to investigate and arranged for Raphael to be evaluated. It was determined that he was not a threat to himself or others.
Raphael’s parents sued the principal and school district claiming that the suspension was retaliation for Raphael exercising his right to free speech in writing the essay. They also argued that the principal violated their rights as parents in notifying child protective services.
In August, 2011, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school. The lawsuit was dismissed with the court stating that “A school administrator must be able to react to ambiguous student speech by temporarily removing the student from potential danger (to himself and others) until it can be determined whether the speech represents a real threat to school safety and student learning.
The lesson here is to think carefully about what you say in person or write about. Think how your listener or reader will react and if your speech poses any potential danger or the anticipation of such by others. Once you put it out there, you can’t take it back.