Last week Sean, a 16-year-old computer geek and gamer who has never been in serious trouble, was thrown out of a Texas school and ordered into "alternative education" for responding to a year's worth of bullying and harassment, some verbal, some physical. His crime was to fantasize out loud about revenge. He got as much due process as Chinese dissidents get. His father, a Slashdot reader and graphic designer, has pulled his son out of the system and into home schooling. He asks for help and advice. This is a story about life in America's schools these days for people who are "different," who live at the mercy of jerks and cover-your-butt administrators. (Read more.)
Last week, Sean Sheeley -- computer geek, gamer, and high-school junior in the McKinney Independent School District north of Dallas -- was confronted by a group of students in one of his classes. They'd been tormenting Sheeley for much of the school year, he says. He'd been jabbed, ridiculed, baited, had disks stoken from his computer.
Sheely's father Patrick, a graphic designer, says the incident unfolded this way: one of the kids in his class came up to Sean while others were taunting him and said aloud with others present, "One of these days, he's going to bring a gun to school and shoot us."
Patrick Sheeley, a Slashdot regular, says that "my son, being a little sarcastic, took out a small case that he carries his keys in and pretended to be loading a gun. The same student then said, 'Look, he's loading his gun.'
At some point, says Patrick, one of the other students joined in with some additional comments, further upsetting Sean, who then responded:
"If this had been a real gun,you'd be dead now." One of the kids turned him in.
Sean was called into the principal's office where he got suspended for three days and sent home. School officials then notified his parents that Sean was being removed from the high school and sent to an alternative school for kids with learning and other problems. He was no longer fit for mainstream education, the school had decided.
The decision was "unappealable" to school administrators, Patrick was told. He could appeal to the school district, but not until May, when the school year was virtually over. None of the other students involved have been disciplined, nor, to the Sheeleys' knowledge, even questioned. Patrick says officials told him that the school has a statement from a single student who overheard the remark and reported it.
Sean says that he'd like to forget the whole day, but here's what he remembers:
"There was much of the usual taunting, mocking my intelligence, mocking things I hold interest in, etc. Then one of them said, 'You know, one of these days he's going to bring a gun to school and kill us all.' And that is, so to speak, what knocked over the first domino. I also remember one of them trying to take the computer disks out of my backpack... the same person who went through my backpack accused me of being gay."
Sean said he'd prefer the high school to an alternative school. Othwerwise, he says, "why would I want to go back to a school that lies, breaks state laws, and gets rid of bright students who finally snap, merely to 'make the school feel safer?' All the school is doing is satisfying a few parents' false sense of insecurity, brought on by the intense media attention to the recent school shootings, by giving them a false sense of security, at the expense of students like myself. The ONLY reason I'd want to go back is to see my few friends again, and I can keep in contact with them without going to school."
Sean's comment was foolish, his father says, especially in the post-Columbine environment where candid speech about schools is dangerous. And he isn't averse to some milder form of punishment.
I wonder if Sean deserves anything more than a useful speech on sensible responses to morons. Perhaps he should be called into an office and told that one of an individual's noblest callings is to make fools reveal themselves. There appear to be mitigating circumstances, to say the least, and Sean was defending himself, reflexively and verbally, if not wisely. Patrick is surprised by the profoundly anti-democratic, Banana Republic policies that govern public schools in America, where there is no Constitution, protected speech, or due process for citizens under 18. Thousands of kids like Sean won't be the least bit surprised.
In fact, school officials across the country may be chasing the wrong kids out of school. The U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 2,000 school age children 19 or younger take their lives each year in the United States, many citing depression, social cruelty and bullying and other forms of harassment. That means that many more kids harm themselves as the result of social cruelty than harm other kids.
"I just don't know what to do," says Patrick, who can't afford a lawyer, and who wants to protect his kid. Sheeley is aware that this kind of record could have implications for Sean down the line. "...I would appreciate any suggestions as to what recourse we may have, or where we might find some help."
In the meantime, he and his wife have pulled Sean out of the district rather than submit to his being shunted to an altenative school. The Sheeleys are home-schooling him, an increasingly popular alternative for individualistic kids facing creative suffociation or social isolation and persecution in larger schools. "What's the lesson for him?" his father asks. "This wasn't a fair process. The kids who provoked him were not disciplined equally, or at all. It could have been me," Patrick says, of the incident. "I felt the same way when I was in school. I probably even said the same thing." It could have been lot of people.
Even though administrators have deemed Sean too dangerous to stay in high school -- perhaps he triggered one of their dangerous-kid-profiles -- the junior has never been in trouble of any sort, his father says, inside or out of school: never been arrested, disciplined, suspended, or even involved in a fight.
I called the school district to ask if there was any comment. A secretary in the administrators' office asked me if I was kidding. "No," she said. We don't have any. And what is a Slashdot?"
Sean provides a nearly classic example of kids in the middle of an increasingly insane social situation. We know this story. Sean and his father are both self-professed computer geeks. Sean has a few friends who are into computers and gaming, and who generally feel isolated and excluded at school. Sean finds many of his classes boring, although he has met academic requirements, and spends most of his time in his creative other life, building computers, programming, networking, writing games, especially RPG's.
His experience shows that a culture of harassment remains tolerated in many educational institutions; where kids can be taunted and bullied at will, sometimes into retaliatory statements or actions.
Patrick Sheeley has some decisions to make and could use some help. Should he try to get Sean back into school or walk away? Should he take legal action to force due process? (Many Slashdot community members are familiar with home schooling, judging from my e-mail). He would appreciate hearing from lawyers with expertise in cases like this. He's contacted the ACLU, but isn't sure whether it can or will represent Sean. He knows that irrational policies and the post-Columbine hysteria are all closing in on his kid, and he wants to do something about it.