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High School Poet Suspended for Expressing Herself About Shootings

High School Poet Suspended for Expressing Herself About Shootings

High school student Courtni Webb wasn’t preparing an assignment when she wrote a dark, provocative poem about the Sandy Hook shootings in Connecticut, talking about how “society puts these thoughts in our head” and her experiences as a teen growing up in a culture that can sometimes be stark and harsh. It wasn’t her first dark poem; she’s written about suicidal thoughts and other heavy topics before, and these poems haven’t attracted undue attention, even when submitted as assignments.

But this poem did, because of two lines: “I understand the killings in Connecticut/I understand why he pulled the trigger.” A teacher found the poem, which was in her personal notebook, not intended for the school, and turned it in. Webb’s poem certainly wasn’t a celebration of Adam Lanza’s actions, but her school apparently interpreted it as a “threat” and suspended her. A close read of the poem reveals that while it expresses empathy and understanding, it doesn’t condone or support the shootings. Just the opposite: it challenges the culture and society that breeds hatred and violence.

A narrowminded zero tolerance policy at her school, though, meant that Webb was expelled, and the conversation she was trying to start was soundly shut down. School officials say that any kind of talk about violence is grounds for dismissal, but Webb and her mother argue this is a free speech violation, and they haven’t been shy about taking to the media to advocate for Webb and demand that her student status be reinstated.

This case highlights a number of problems with the U.S. educational system and they couldn’t come at a better time, when the entire nation is doing some serious self-examination in the wake of a particularly bad year for mass shootings. Clearly, students are going to express themselves in poetry, visual arts, and other forms of media, and they should be encouraged to do so. Art can help people process and work through emotions, express feelings they want to explore but not necessarily act upon, and develop creativity. If students are condemned for creating works of art, it creates an environment of fear that may make them not just afraid to create something to express feelings, but also to talk openly about concerns and issues in their lives.

That schools need a system for mental health interventions and the identification of potentially risky situations is undeniable, but such systems need to be more discriminating. Webb’s poem didn’t include threats against her life or those of others, nor did they indicate a desire to attack the school or any other institution. It didn’t suggest that she was violent, planning violence, or knew of any kind of plot against the school. It suggested that she was, understandably, troubled by an incident of violence that had dominated the media, and she wanted to explore her emotions in a medium that was familiar to her.

By suspending her, the school sent a harsh message. Zero tolerance policies don’t work, and in fact do far more harm than good; they’re a direct contributor in the school to prison pipeline in the United States, and they’re harming an entire generation of youth struggling in school environments in the wake of Columbine, when such policies first started to become wildly popular. Harm reduction starts with assessing students as individuals, not slotting them into a rigid protocol.

This cause has become bigger than one poet and one poem, speaking to larger problems across the U.S. and an urgent need to rethink the way schools approach discipline.

Here’s hoping Courtni gets back to school soon. It sounds like she has a lot of potential as a poet and activist, even as the school system tries to hold her back.

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Photo credit: Tony Hall

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2:13PM PDT on Oct 29, 2013

Harsh is the new "normal"? :(

5:22AM PDT on Jun 11, 2013

It's not just in the USA actually...

4:26PM PDT on May 21, 2013

When will the stupidity end?!

8:50PM PDT on May 16, 2013

There are so many things we can't say openly in public, we don't really have freedom of speech in this country.

4:07AM PDT on May 4, 2013

Silly educational system in the USA...

4:21PM PDT on May 3, 2013

What this teacher saw in her poem was a reflection of herself hence the drama of blaming someone else this is the American culture at work since it was taken over by the Rothschild's.
How can the system condemn the thoughts of children when its this system that constantly implanting these thoughts into them. American film industry is the sickest in the world and just look at who runs it. Rothchild's relatives and children.

2:24PM PDT on May 3, 2013

I often made fun of america's school systems' bureaucratic ways (in school) and i'm sure teachers hear it and counselors know. I once discussed a possible strategy that could be used to shoot up my high school, and one of my teachers definitely overheard, as well as the librarian, but I have never been suspended based on suspicion. I suspect it has to do with how calm and tolerant the people in my neighborhood are (almost no bullying!). But these expulsions/suspensions are pointless. If my non-serious comments (which are very suspicious) were ignored, then why do people care about this?

5:23AM PDT on May 3, 2013

I'd have to read the poem before I have an opinion. I always lean in defense of the First Amendment, but threatening to shoot up a school does is not speech that falls under the
First Amendment's protection. Without seeing the point, I can't make any determination of what her intent was.

10:17AM PDT on May 2, 2013

Errr... can we see the poem and make up our own minds, please?

9:29AM PDT on May 1, 2013

I wrote a few poems that got me stuck in the counselors office, especially in Middle School. They were also in a personal notebook, not for school. Why can't kids express themselves freely in writing, she didn't threaten anyone? Craziness. hope they take it to court

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