Michael Harrison

There’s currently a lot of talk in educational circles about what it means to be an educator “post-Columbine.” Just this weekend the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about the families of the Littleton victims and the growing demand to find someone to blame for such tragedies. Of course, the perpetrators receive some of the blame. And local police. And the perpetrators’ families. And, increasingly, schools and school administrators.

Last week it came to my attention that Walter, one of our new sophomores, was visiting a Web site that specializes in explosives. I was surprised. Perhaps naively, I thought I would be dealing with these issues only in the abstract. Our school is pretty isolated–you can see cows from the window of the faculty lounge.

And yet there it was on my desk, a printout of the site Walter had visited. The banner at the top read: “YOU TOO CAN BLOW THINGS UP USING EVERYDAY HOUSEHOLD ITEMS!!!”

There was no question Walter was looking at the site–he was doing it in the library and didn’t flinch when the librarian walked right up behind him. The question is, Why was Walter reading about bombs? Because he’s a bored teen-age boy who had finished all of his assignments and wanted to entertain himself in study hall? Or because he is angry, alienated, and secretly plotting to lay waste to our entire school?

When I brought Walter into my office, he tried to play it cool. He stared intently at his shoes, then focused his gaze out the window. Finally he looked at me. “Any kids get in trouble today?” he asked with a sheepish grin.

I didn’t smile.

“I was just fooling around!” he said. “I wasn’t going to do anything. I’m not some sort of trench-coat psycho. I don’t even have a trench coat.”

“Walter–this is very serious,” I told him. “Do you understand that?”

“It is? Oh shit, I guess it is.” The tears started to well up in his eyes. “Are you going to tell my mom?”

“Walter, what were you doing looking at that Web site? Tell me the truth.”

“Well … I was bored–I thought it might be cool. I mean, kids think blowing stuff up is cool. I wasn’t going to actually try to build something. I’m sure I would just end up hurting myself!”

My educator’s instinct tells me that Walter’s not going to blow up the school. He is an awkward young man who hasn’t quite found a niche among his peers. He does periodically give attitude to teachers. He does play games like Doom and Quake on his computer. And yet he also watches cartoons and has a picture of his dog on his desk.

I think Walter is a teen-ager with teen-age problems–and perhaps a bit more; perhaps some real depression. Do I think he’s a sociopath? No. However, when I discuss this matter with our school attorney (who is the first person we call in situations like these), I am advised, “Expulsion–immediately. The school can’t take a chance on a kid like this. Something happens and you’ll be closed down.”

Two years ago, our school wrote an explicit policy on Internet use. Research for school projects, reading the newspaper, even checking the stock market is OK. Pornography and hate groups are not. We never thought of explosives. I agree that Walter should receive consequences. He should be suspended, perhaps even placed on probation. But expelled?

So I searched his room. When I opened the door it smelled like teen-ager. There were piles of dirty laundry. Week-old dinner dishes stacked on his desk. I dug into his closet and found an unopened bag of school supplies hiding beneath some stiff socks. I looked under his bed and found a Victoria’s Secret catalog. On top of his dresser was a cardboard box hidden beneath a towel. If I had found fuses, a bomb-making manual, even fertilizer, Walter would be expelled by now. But there was nothing more ominous in the box than a kite, a calculator, and a broken clock radio.

So what should happen to Walter? Should he be allowed to screw up, to make mistakes, to be a teen-ager? Or are we putting hundreds of people at risk by allowing him to stay?

We had a conference with his parents this morning. We are requiring that Walter see an adolescent psychiatrist for a full evaluation. This professional will tell us whether or not Walter can return to school. I hope Walter can come back. I hope we can help him.

Things seemed much simpler when I was a student.