Christopher Beamon, a 13-year-old seventh-grader in Ponder, Texas, was, according to a school administrator, a "disciplinary problem."
He was also, according to a classmate, a little "weird."
Tuesday, Christopher was released after spending nearly a week in the Denton County juvenile correctional facility for writing - at his teacher's request - a fictional Halloween horror story that described the shooting of two classmates and his teacher.
Christopher had become another, particularly dramatic Hellmouth horror story, one more sacrifice to the profoundly ignorant way in which politics, education and the criminal justice system treat complex social issues involving technology, culture and the young.
The teacher gave Beamon a score of 100 on the writing assignment, on which she also wrote "outstanding."
Then, perhaps remembering the ongoing post-Columbine assault in American education on young geeks, nerds, gamers, the weird and the non-normal, she thought better of the grade and his story, and turned Beamon in to the principal.
School officials contacted the local district attorney, Bruce Isaacks. Beamon was taken into custody and brought before Denton County Juvenile Judge Court Darlene Whitten, who ordered the seventh-grader detained for 10 days. Whitten approved Christopher's early release only after the his stunned mother and the family's court-appointed lawyers began contacting Texas reporters.
The district attorney said - regretfully - that he couldn't find any grounds to prosecute Christopher, but managed to brand him on national TV anyway: "It looks like the child was doing what the teacher told him to do, which was to write a scary story" said Isaacks,"but this child does appear to be a persistent discipline problem for this school, and the administrators were legitimately concerned." The DA's subliminal message was obvious. Would Christopher have been hauled off to jail he if was the star quarterback on the high school football team? Not likely.
On his release from jail, Christopher Beamon said "it seems like a year ago, a big ol' long year" since he was first arrested, and asked for a bean burrito from Taco Bell.
Beamon's arrest came just days after the U.S. Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency (ATF) announced it was joining with a private security firm (see the Slashdot: article) to distribute Mosaic-2000, a software program designed to spot potentially dangerous students in schools.
Beamon's essay, available on the Dallas Morning News website, describes he and a friend fending off an intruder with a .12 gauge shotgun. "this bloody body dropped down in front of us and scared us half to death and about 20 kids started cracking up and pissed me off so I shot Matt, Jake and Ben started laughing so hard that I acssedently [sic} shot Mrs. Henry (his teacher)."
The story is a crude, if classic pre-adolescent fantasy, and is about as menacing as "Daffy Duck." It would seem logical to many adolescent boys that a horror story might include some violence. Check it out for yourself.
Beamon said he read the story aloud in class for extra credit, and the teacher not only gave him a perfect score, but laughed when he read about her accidental shooting. The next day, he was in the local juvenile detention center for suspicion of making "terroristic threats." (Perhaps a bit ingenuously, Beamon told reporters he spent his time in jail reading the Bible).
Last year, in the wake of the Columbine killings, scores of schoolkids, many of them geeks, nerds, gamers, Goths and various assorted oddballs, reported a wave of suspensions, expulsions and forced counseling sessions after they were asked to speak openly about their feelings about school, classmates and cultural values. Many said they regretted speaking frankly about their feelings about school, and wouldn't do it again. They were wise.
A number of kids who said they understand at least some of the rage that might have driven the Columbine killers were sent home or ordered into compulsory counseling and re-education sessions.
What a windfall Columbine has been for timid educational bureaucrats: they don't have to deal with their disaffected students and their problems: they can just ship them off to counseling, private schools or jail.
And what a black mark for journalism, which contributed so mightily to the hysterical atmosphere in which this kind of insanity is possible -- remember the post-Columbine are computer-games-turning-your-kids-into-killers coverage? -- and manages to rarely offer relevent facts or ask any of the right or elemental questions:
Why are schools adopting these increasingly Draconian measures when violence in schools and among the young in general has been dropping sharply for years?
Isn't it better for kids to express their angry, even violent fantasies openly, where parents and educators can see and talk about them? Is it really safer if these feelings are hidden - the real legacy of Columbine and Christopher's nightmare.
Do children have any rights at all to free speech or due process? Do they have any recourse when opinions and stories are solicited by teachers and administrators, then used to punish and silence them?
Free societies have always accepted trade-offs between security and freedom. Urban streets would be a lot safer if nobody was permitted to go outside after 6 p.m., or if thieves and robbers had their hands chopped off. But safety isn't the only value in a democracy.
School killings are horrible, but they are rare. And they aren't as random as media reports would suggest: they invariably involve emotionally-disturbed adolescent white males with access to lethal weapons. Justice department surveys repeatedly have found that schools are the safest places for kids to be.
Awful as they are, these incidents don't justify turning schools into ideological prison camps where informers are encouraged, normalcy is a forced value, and law enforcement authorities are called in to police stories and jokes.
Beamon was asked on the Today Show what he learned from his experience. "Be careful what you say," he said.
Judge Whitten defended her decision to the Dallas Morning News: "I do want people to understand that, just like making a threat at an airport, a threat in a school situation is very serious, even if it was in jest."
Another grisly Columbine legacy: judges ruling on adolescent humor, deciding which jokes are acceptable, and which constitute terroristic threats. In Millenial America, fantasizing about fending off intruders with shotguns or offing your teacher is now a felony.
Judge Whitten reflected contemporary educational as well as law-enforcement thinking about oddball, individualistic thinking and offensive humor: it ought to be a crime, along with anger. Thus Beamon might have suffered the same fate if he quoted from any given character on the geek-loved "South Park." Beamon was lucky he wasn't a gamer playing "Doom:" he'd probably still be in jail.
For geek and nerd kids, this issue has special relevance, since they are prone to disliking school and are often angered by exclusion, harassment, and a widening gap between their often-Net inspired values, and the all-too often-oppressive 19th century educational system many have to endure. They are also nearly addicted to offensive humor.
The alienated and the weird are not only frustrated, but are now all potential killers as well. The price of being different only goes up.
The post-Columbine message was clear enough, even for a seventh-grader like Christopher: watch what you say, or safer yet, don't speak at all.