In the Crosshairs: Killing Creativity in a Nevada School District

Zero ToleranceWith little more than two months left before school's end, what could have possessed 16-year-old Zoe Kohen Ley to do it?

As police scoured her locker for guns, she begged for mercy. She cried as a school administrator tore personal notes, evidence, from her journal.

But some, including her teacher, would say she should have known better. Did she really think she'd get away with writing about such dangerous ideas in school?

Zoe tried to answer that question in Clark County (Nevada) District Court two weeks ago before Judge Lee Gates: "It was creative writing class!"

Maybe, in some fairytale past, students might have been free to write what Zoe wrote in Miss Ell's creative writing class. Especially students in a school like Las Vegas Academy, which is designed to accommodate more creative, artistically minded students.

Then again, that was before Columbine. That was before the state of Nevada legislated "zero tolerance" in our schools. And that was long before the school district started applying its expulsion policy not only to students who commit violence, but to those -- like Zoe -- who dare to even write about it in a creative writing class.

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"Instead of educating our kids to be critical thinkers, creative minds, and to have faith in the values of free speech, we may well be training a generation of fearful, overly cautious, emotionally pent-up and intellectually stagnant drones."
America will likely never fully recover from the terror of Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold and the 13 people they slaughtered at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Lawmakers reacted swiftly.

In Carson City, in May 1999, the Nevada Legislature did their part by enacting a little-known and virtually unreported bill that made it incredibly easy for schools to get rid of students. Signed by Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, the new law allows schools to label students as "habitual disciplinary problems" if they have "threatened or extorted, or attempted to threaten or extort, another pupil or (school employee)" in a year's time.

And any student labeled a "habitual disciplinary problem" must be expelled immediately from school for at least one semester. There's no leeway.

On the heels of that, Clark County schools began talking more stridently about having "zero tolerance" for, well, just about anything that might disrupt school life.

While everyone can imagine and appreciate the need for such laws in relation to actual school violence, drugs or crime, little thought seemed to have been spent on the potential for abuse or misuse of these laws and policies. With "habitual disciplinary problems" defined so broadly, for instance, there seems to be a high probability that even those students with virtually no disciplinary background, no history of violence, and no violent intents could be rounded up with the others and thrown out.

Las Vegas' Allen Lichtenstein, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, has a name for zero-tolerance policies that he believes are behind the whittling away of students' First Amendment rights. It's a cop-out by school administrators, he says, and it's costing us our civil liberties and the promise of free-thinking students.

When Zoe was kicked out of school in March for something she wrote in creative writing class, she was cited as an "habitual disciplinary problem." She'd never been in trouble before.

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On Zoe's last day in class, "Miss Ell," as students called the creative writing teacher, gave them an assignment: During the course of the class, write a dramatic scene based on one of several aphorisms, or sayings. Then Miss Ell read the sayings aloud. Zoe latched immediately onto the phrase, "better late than never," which had been the story of her life over the last year. Suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome -- a debilitating disease that effects some 1 million Americans with headaches, constant flu-like symptoms and fatigue -- Zoe had missed a lot of school. Miss Ell testified that Zoe missed 15 of 34 creative writing classes last semester. She was late for others. And Miss Ell didn't like it one bit.

"I told her it was an act of disrespect to me," Miss Ell testified calmly recently when Zoe's case finally came before the courts.

Ell's calm in the courtroom stood in sharp contrast to a scene Zoe described back in school. Zoe said that when she went into Miss Ell's class one noon hour to get her make-up assignments, Miss Ell was eating a salad. She took one look at her fork, and one look at her student.

"(Ell) said, 'You know what I'd like to do?'" Zoe testified. "'I'd like to stab you in the eye with a fork.'"

Zoe said she crept out of the room and got another student to go back in for the work. Miss Ell testified that she never made such a comment.

Whether she did or not, there appeared to be obvious tension between the two. The question is, did Zoe vent those frustrations in her writing back in March? Or did Miss Ell see this as an opportunity to get rid of a frustrating student?

It all boiled down to "Better Late Than Never," the title of a dramatic scene Zoe wrote for Ell's class. It begins with a character named Zoe who decries the practice of rewarding punctuality while punishing those who are late or disobedient. "Jane may be a genius and a prodigy, but Jack is punctual!" the piece reads. " People who blindly follow orders and adhere to policies are clogging the arteries of the world, you know."

"With "habitual disciplinary problems" defined so broadly, there seems to be a high probability that even those students with virtually no disciplinary background, no history of violence, and no violent intents could be rounded up with the others and thrown out."
The character named Zoe continues: "Knowledge means nothing in a system designed to create working-class drones out of innocent children!" Then, "quiet, seething rage, almost a whisper," Zoe adds, "You can take your 7:00 mornings, your meaningless busywork. I, for one, am done with it."

The Zoe character sits down, and pulls a gun from her backpack, putting it on her lap. Suddenly, the character Jenn enters. "You were late for first period again, Zoe. Gawd! Can't you just show up on time once ...(Is cut off by being shot in the head by Zoe. Dies.)

Then the character Zoe shoots herself in the head.

End of scene. Stage lights fade out.

When she finished writing it, Zoe read it to Miss Ell's class. Their reaction, she testified, ranged from indifference to chuckling to uttering "cool." Miss Ell, however, said some students looked at her "pretty much in shock."

Perhaps they couldn't get over the similarity, Miss Ell said, between the name of the Jenn character, and her own name, Jennifer Ell. Was it more than a coincidence, given the spats Zoe and Miss Ell had over absences?

Miss Ell thought not, and when class was over, she told Principal Gerye. Then came the school police. Then Zoe was called into his office, where the school police awaited. Zoe was at first confused. What's going on? Did she do something wrong? When Gerye told her she could be thrown out of school for threatening a teacher, she began to cry. Threatening a teacher? She swore her story had nothing to do with Miss Ell. Zoe didn't even connect the Jenn character with Miss Ell, because she never knew Jennifer was Miss Ell's first name.

And the violent ending? Zoe said the only reason she ended it so violently was because class time was running out and she figured it was a quick way to wrap up the scene. Her original idea, she said, was just to have it ending in a discussion.

"I don't do violence," Zoe said in court. "I'm a pacifist. I actually faint at the sight of blood."

Besides, violently themed writings had been pretty much the norm in creative writing. Other students testified that in Miss Ell's class, one student wrote about killing a teacher with midgets and vomit. "Scary weird" is how one of Zoe's classmates described it to Judge Gates. But it didn't appear to upset Miss Ell, who the classmate said laughed about it, while saying it was "terrible."

After going through Zoe's locker, and after reading the "suicide note" in Zoe's journal (the 16-year-old said the note wasn't serious, that she'd never commit suicide, and she couldn't remember when it was written) police finally told Zoe and administrators that they didn't think she was a threat. Even the school dean started to have a little fun with it, holding Zoe's hairbrush like a gun and wondering aloud if it could be used as a dangerous weapon.

A few days later, however, Principal Gerye told Zoe and her mom that if Zoe returned to campus, she'd be escorted away in handcuffs. Never in trouble before, she'd suddenly been labeled a "habitual disciplinary problem."

"Even the school dean started to have a little fun with it, holding Zoe's hairbrush like a gun and wondering aloud if it could be used as a dangerous weapon."
And Zoe thought her future had just disappeared. Not only would she miss some tender high school moments--her first prom and the end-of-the-year yearbook signing--but she seriously doubted any conservatory in the country would want someone accused of threatening a teacher.

"This will remain on my record, that I had threatened a teacher's life," said Zoe, her voice cracking, a few weeks after being kicked out. "That looks so bad to colleges, jobs, to anything I want to apply for. I am now on record as having threatened someone, and no one wants the kid who threatens to kill."

As much as some teachers and administrators want to deny it, students do have rights. The landmark case ensuring those rights occurred in 1969. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court sided with three pupils from Des Moines, Iowa, whom the district had suspended for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. In their decision, the high court ruled that as long as the speech didn't infringe on the rights of others and as long as the students weren't disruptive, the speech was protected.

Barry Glassner, a University of Southern California sociology professor and author ofCulture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things, said cases like Zoe's are the result of a zero-tolerant schools systems so scared "they are overreacting to behaviors and comments that just a few years ago would have been ignored." And what that's teaching kids, he fears, is far worse than the punishment. "The message we're sending to young people is that the slightest slip-up by them can have devastating consequences," Glassner said in a phone interview. "But tremendous irresponsibility by citizens in the community can be ignored. We're teaching them that it's OK to overreact to situations, when precisely the opposite message needs to be given. Most of us would like young people to have measured, realistic responses to the world around them, to other people."

Echoing the sentiments of her character in "Better Late Than Never," Zoe can't help but see how a policy that kept her out of school for an idea can be anything but hurtful to the entire learning process. "It certainly teaches (students) to be obedient little drones who must conform to the rules or everything will be taken from them," she said. "It teaches you to express yourself, just so long as it doesn't offend anyone else. I think it's ridiculous."

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Back in District Court, you couldn't exactly say Judge Gates was having fun with this case. Though he did chuckle at one of Zoe's classmates retelling how he got kicked out of school for 10 days for calling Miss Ell a whore, Gates scolded both sides for being long-winded, even stopping once to admonish Zoe's mom. "Who do you think you are!?"

But in the end, he sided with Zoe on two counts, agreeing that not only was her right to due process violated, but so was her right to free speech. On due process, Gates had a hard time seeing how she could have been kicked out of school for 41 days without a hearing. And when the school lawyer told him the district has a system of "progressive" discipline, the judge wondered how a student with no priors could get thrown out of school for a single offense.

"She gets the death penalty, when the policy of the school district is progressive?" Gates said. "I don't think they gave her due process."

And where the teacher and school officials couldn't see it, Gates had no problem understanding that Zoe's First Amendment rights had been violated.

"Creative writing means you can play with the facts," he said, pointing to a range of writers from Shakespeare to Hollywood screen writers. "The whole purpose of creative writing is to have an effect on people, to make them think, and she did that."

Zoe was a plaintiff in District Court on May 1. On May 2, she was back in school. At this writing, the school district was negotiating with her lawyer over final details like lawyer's fees and clearing Zoe's school record.

And her future? It's not as dark as it seemed as she sat crying and shaking in the principal's office in March. Zoe recently learned that a prestigious liberal arts college and conservatory in Ohio, Oberlin College, has accepted her as a freshman this fall, providing she finishes her GED by the end of the summer. For Zoe, her talent and her ability to think critically and freely has become her ticket to an adventurous, bright and promising future.

Ironically, the culture of fear and zero-tolerance adopted by Clark County schools threatens to sift and winnow those very abilities from other school children. Instead of educating our kids to be critical thinkers, creative minds, and to have faith in the values of free speech, we may well be training a generation of fearful, overly cautious, emotionally pent-up and intellectually stagnant drones.

And in the end, maybe mindless zero-tolerance policies, and the deafening silence and fear they produce, are just as deserving of our attention and concern as the violent outbursts of two outcasts who terrorized Columbine High School and who seem to still be holding our collective good judgement hostage to their terror.

As Zoe might say, "I, for one, am done with it."

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