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.
Photo credit: Tony Hall