Poetry as Art and Threat

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Times Staff Writer

The boy was shy, 15 and new to his high school in San Jose. He wrote poems in his notebooks and carried them everywhere. One day in honors English, he approached a classmate who had been kind to him and asked her to read one of them.

“Is there a poetry club here?” the gangly teenager wanted to know.

The girl read the poem, but it did not spark a friendship. Instead, fearing for her life, she fled the campus. Police went to the boy’s home two days later and arrested him.

The poem, called “Faces,” ended with these lines:

“For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school. So parents watch your children cuz I’m back!!”


The boy, identified in court records only as George Julius T., had no history of violence and wrote “Faces” at a time when his family was broke and living with an uncle. But a Juvenile Court judge decided that the poem amounted to a criminal threat, a felony, and the boy served four months in juvenile hall.

Haunted by school shootings, teachers, principals and law enforcement officials are scrutinizing students’ creative work as never before. They are punishing, expelling and sometimes prosecuting young people whose stories, poetry or art evoke violence.

George’s case, now before the California Supreme Court, is one of several across the nation that have vexed judges, forcing them to decide when artistic expression becomes criminal intimidation, and whether a poem or painting is a portent of mayhem or an innocent reaction to the violence that students see around them.

The cases raise complex questions: Is a student who imagines a horrible deed more likely than others to commit one? Or is it natural, even beneficial, for students to express anger and feelings of alienation through art?

A state appellate court upheld George’s conviction, but a dissenting judge pointed out that poets Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell wrote “similarly angst-filled and sometimes violent text.”

“This lonely young man was searching for a way to spark a friendship at his new school by sharing his poem,” wrote Justice Conrad Rushing of the 6th District Court of Appeal in Santa Clara County.


Increasingly, courts are deferring to school authorities who discipline students for giving vent to violent thoughts. But whether students can be criminally charged for such creative outpourings is a matter of debate, and of conflicting judicial opinions.

In the small Texas town of Pounder, a seventh-grader was held in juvenile hall for several days in 1999 after writing a Halloween story about the shooting of a teacher and two fellow students. The story was deemed an unlawful threat -- until authorities discovered that the boy had been assigned to write a scary story. Then he was released.

In rural Whatcom County, Wash., a school district in 1998 expelled a 16-year-old boy who wrote a poem about a fictitious mass murder on campus. The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the expulsion last year.

Placed on Probation

In Worcester, Mass., a 12-year-old boy was placed on probation in 1999 for showing his teacher a picture he had drawn that depicted him shooting her. The state’s highest court ruled last year that the drawing was a criminal threat.

“The schools are becoming one of the primary pipelines to the juvenile justice system,” said Shannan Wilber, executive director of Legal Services for Children in San Francisco.

Threats are not protected by the Constitution’s free speech guarantees, but judges often disagree about what constitutes a threat.


In the context of art or fiction, a violent image is less likely to be viewed as a threat, but “it doesn’t make it open and shut,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA.

Fear of school shootings swept the country in 1999 after two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killed 12 classmates, a teacher and then themselves. The killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, had previously made violence-filled videos for a class.

Ed Kovac, director of school security and investigative services for the Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County, said districts should be “attentive in the art and English departments, in video classes as well as photography classes.

“That is where it is going to show up, in the artwork and the writings,” he said. “So you want your teachers to be vigilant.”

After Columbine, a U.S. Department of Education report listed violent stories, poetry and drawings among the harbingers of student violence.

“Many children produce work about violent themes that for the most part is harmless when taken in context,” the report said. “However, an overrepresentation of violence in writings and drawings that is directed at specific individuals ... may signal emotional problems and the potential for violence.”


Deciding on the right response is not easy, as a school district in Oconto County, Wis., learned in 1998 when a 13-year-old boy committed to paper a homicidal fantasy about a teacher.

The teacher, nicknamed Mrs. C., had assigned her students to write a story. The boy, identified in court records only as Douglas D., was talking in class, so she sent him to the hallway to finish his work.

Douglas’ story depicted Mrs. C. as “an ugly old woman” who angered a student named Dick by kicking him out of her classroom. With crude spelling, Douglas went on to describe how “Dick” returned to school with a hidden knife.

“The next morning Dick came to class & in his coat he conseled a machedy,” the boy wrote. “When the teacher told him to shut up he whipped it out & cut off her head. When the sub came 2 days later she needed a paperclip so she opened the droor. Ahh she screamed as she found Mrs. C’s head in the droor.”

Douglas apologized but was suspended from school.

A month later, police decided that the story amounted to a death threat and took him before a Juvenile Court judge. He was convicted of disorderly conduct and placed on probation for a year.

Overturning the conviction, the Wisconsin Supreme Court said that the school suspension was warranted but that criminal charges were not.


“A 13-year-old boy’s impetuous writings do not necessarily fall from 1st Amendment protection due to their offensive nature,” the court majority wrote.

Conviction Overturned

In a California case, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento last year overturned the felony conviction of a Chico boy who painted a grisly picture of himself shooting the school’s peace officer. The female officer had cited him for possession of marijuana a month earlier.

The student, identified in court records only as Ryan D., produced the painting for a class assignment. It showed pieces of the officer’s face being blown away. Her badge number was clearly visible.

Ryan’s art teacher alerted an assistant principal. When the officer saw the painting, she feared for her life, according to court records.

Police arrested Ryan, then 15, at school. He was convicted of making a threat, a felony, and placed on probation.

James B. Berglund, a lawyer who represented Ryan, remembers him as a quiet boy with a learning disability and a streak of naivete but also a gift for painting.


His parents were divorced, and he lived with his mother, whom Berglund described as “an incredibly nonviolent individual who taught him how to express himself with nonviolent means.”

“His art was how he expressed himself,” the lawyer said.

In reversing the conviction, the Court of Appeal observed that Ryan gave the painting to his art teacher, not to the officer. To establish a criminal threat, it would have to be shown that he wanted the officer to see the work, the court said.

“The painting ... does not appear to be anything other than pictorial ranting,” the court said. “The criminal law does not, and cannot now, implement a zero-tolerance policy concerning the expressive depiction of violence.”

Three months after this ruling, the Court of Appeal in Santa Clara County upheld George Julius T.’s conviction for making a criminal threat in his poem “Faces.”

The court considered the ruling in Ryan’s case but said that George wrote his poem on his own, not as part of his classwork, and that he handed it to those he wanted to threaten.

George had been at Santa Teresa High School in San Jose for only 10 days when he wrote the poem in 2001.


He had been kicked out of two other schools in the previous three months -- for urinating on a wall at one and using plagiarized material from the Internet for a term paper at the other.

He was socially awkward, but bright, according to one of his attorneys.

Richard Gardner, the Santa Clara County deputy district attorney who prosecuted George, described him as “one of these out-of-control students ... very large. He has got to be 6’1” or 6’2” ... somewhat of a scary-looking kid.”

George declined a request for an interview and did not respond to written questions from The Times.

Before handing the girl his poem on a Friday afternoon, George told her: “These poems describe me and my feelings. Tell me if they describe you and your feelings.”

The girl, who testified at George’s Juvenile Court hearing, said he did not show any emotion.

The poem, printed on lined notebook paper, began:

Who are these faces around me?

Where did they come from?

They would probably become

the next doctors loirs [sic] or

something. All

really intelligent and ahead in

their game.

I wish I had a choice on what I

want to be like they do.

All so happy and vagrant. ...

They make me want to puke.

For I am Dark Destructive &

Dangerous. I

slap on my face of happiness but

inside I am evil!

The girl sent her English teacher, William Rasmussen, an e-mail about the poem, and he called police. They arrested George that Sunday at the home of the uncle with whom he was living.


George had also given the poem to a second student, but she said she put it in her pocket without reading it. Summoned by school officials after George’s arrest, she produced the poem. When she read it, the girl was so frightened she burst into tears, according to court records.

Rasmussen testified at George’s trial that the class was studying an Ernest Hemingway novel, “The Sun Also Rises,” not poetry. This established that George’s poem, which the boy had labeled “Dark Poetry,” was unrelated to his schoolwork. Rasmussen told the court that he was familiar with “dark poetry” and that the genre centers on “death and causing and inflicting major bodily pain and suffering.”

George testified that he wrote “Faces” on a difficult day. He had forgotten to ask his father for lunch money and had gone without eating.

He was charged with making a criminal threat under a 1988 state law designed to punish gang members and others who terrorize people. The law applies to cases in which a threat is “so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate and specific” that the person receiving it fears immediate harm.

Context Is Crucial

Judge Nazario A. Gonzales, who presided over George’s case and found him guilty, said it would have been different if the class had been studying “dark poetry.”

But there was no such context for what flowed from George’s pen, Gonzales said from the bench.


“There was nothing to establish that he wasn’t serious,” the judge said.

Two of three judges on the Court of Appeal agreed, pointing out that George knew that his uncle owned guns and ammunition.

Gardner, the deputy district attorney, said the poem reflected intense anger that was “not the product of a healthy young man.”

“Would he have followed through and shot up the school?” Gardner asked. “There is no way of telling.”

Michael A. Kresser, George’s appellate lawyer, said the teenager is “not an angry, young adolescent type” but “one of these kids who are kind of out there in their own little creative world.”

“This is a guy who writes poetry all the time,” Kresser said.

In a poem titled, “Who I Am,” George expressed feelings of loneliness during his first few days at Santa Teresa. One line in particular seemed to anticipate the furor to come:

“Not able to be yourself and always hiding & thinking would people like me if I behaved differently?”