Federal judge: School officials’ argument can’t ‘hold water’ in student poem case

Wednesday, August 23, 2000

A federal judge has ordered an Oklahoma school district to “immediately”
reinstate a high school student who wrote a poem about killing a teacher.

An 11th-grade student, identified in court papers only as “M.G.,” was
suspended last spring for the remainder of the semester and for the entire first
semester of the 2000-2001 school year after Owasso school officials found her

The poem reads:

Killing Mrs. [Teacher]

I hate this class it is hell
Every day I can't wait for the bell
bitch and whine until it is time,
For me to get in the hall.
Back in the
I would sit and pray
To see if I may
Run away (from this
Now as the days get longer
My yearning gets stronger
To killer
the bitcher.
One day when I get out of jail.
Cuz my friends paid my
And people will ask why.
I'll say because the Bitch had to die!

— By [Student]

M.G. gave a copy of the poem to a friend but never showed it to anyone,
including the teacher. School officials discovered the poem after it fell out of
the friend's bookbag.

School officials suspended M.G., even though after a short investigation they
concluded the poem was not a true threat. The officials maintained that the poem
could create a substantial disruption of the environment in the school, which
has a zero-tolerance policy regarding “threatening behavior.”

D.G. and C.G., parents of M.G., sued the school district in federal court on
behalf of their daughter, alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights. On
Aug. 21, U.S. District Judge James O. Ellison granted M.G. a preliminary
injunction in D.G. v. Independent School Dist. No. 11, ordering school
officials to allow her to attend school pending the outcome of the case.

Ellison reasoned that two important factual questions must be resolved in
order to decide whether to grant a preliminary injunction. The first question is
whether M.G. intended the poem as a true threat. The second question is “whether
the conduct substantially disrupted the operation of the school or invaded the
rights of others.”

“Clearly, if she had intended this poem to convey a genuine threat, or even
if she wrote the poem with the intent of putting teachers in fear by making them
think it was a genuine threat, the school district could appropriately punish
her,” Ellison wrote.

But, he wrote, school officials admitted that “regardless of Student's
intentions, the school administration did not perceive the poem as a genuine

Ellison said he was sensitive to the school officials' plight in the context
of school violence. “The concern for faculty and student safety is particularly
high in view of recent episodes of student violence in Colorado, Oklahoma and
other states,” he wrote.

However, he concluded that the poem did not create a substantial disruption
of the school environment.

“Essentially the argument is that if Student's act of disrespect goes
unpunished, it will be a substantial disruption to the school system in general
because it will undermine the school's authority to discipline students,”
Ellison wrote. “However, that argument simply cannot hold water against the
rights found in the First Amendment.”

Ellison ruled that school officials would have been justified in imposing a
“short-term” suspension until they could investigate the circumstances of the
case. However, after it was determined that the poem was not a true threat and
did not substantially disrupt the school, M.G. should have been allowed to
return to school.

James W. Tilly, M.G.'s attorney, praised the decision as “victory for student
First Amendment rights.”

“The poem was not a true threat, rather it was simply the expression of a
student irritated about a teacher and blowing off steam in private,” Tilly said.
“The student never intended anyone other than one friend to see this poem.

“The judge reasoned that given the content of the poem school officials could
perhaps justify a short-term suspension, but this was a case of school
overreaction,” Tilly said.

Karen Long, attorney for the school district, was in trial and unavailable
for comment.

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