June 30, 2006 11:05 AM PDT

Police blotter: Student sues over IM-related suspension

"Police blotter" is a weekly CNET News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: A student at Weedsport Middle School sues after being suspended for a semester for having an allegedly "threatening" instant-message icon on his home computer.

When: A federal judge in the northern district of New York rules on June 20.

Outcome: U.S. District Judge Norman Mordue rules in favor of the school district, dismissing the student's claims.

What happened, according to court documents: Aaron was 15 years old in April 2001, when he created an icon for his home computer's instant-messaging program. (CNET News.com has withheld Aaron's last name because of his age at the time the suit was filed.)

The icon showed a gun pointing to a head, a bullet leaving the gun, and blood splattering from the head. It included the words "Kill Mr. VanderMolen," the name of Aaron's English teacher at Weedsport Middle School.

Aaron's home computer sported this icon for about three weeks, until another student tipped off VanderMolen.

Although the students apparently viewed the icon as a joke, VanderMolen did not. He later testified that he was scared, concerned and felt sick to his stomach upon reading the message. He asked to be removed from teaching the English class because he was concerned for his safety and that of his 6-month-old child. The school principal claimed that VanderMolen appeared anxious and fearful. (Aaron had no serious disciplinary problems until then.)

As a result, the school district sent Aaron's parents a notice of a formal disciplinary hearing and also tipped off the sheriff's department (which declined to do anything, concluding that the icon was indeed a joke). Meanwhile, a psychologist concluded that Aaron did not pose a threat.

Nevertheless, the school district's hearing officer concluded: "Aaron did commit the act of threatening a teacher, in violation of page 11 of the student handbook, creating an environment threatening the health, safety and welfare of others, and his actions created disruption in the school environment."

The school board subsequently suspended Aaron for the first semester of the 2001-2002 academic year, effective Sept. 26, 2001.

His parents sued, claiming that the icon was protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech, that the school district failed to train staff in proper threat assessment and that the school board violated state law in not following proper procedures.

Mordue rejected the free-speech claims, saying the "icon constituted a true threat unprotected by the First Amendment." Mordue dismissed the state law claims as well, though Aaron has the option of filing them again in state court.

Excerpt from court's opinion: "The First Amendment protection of free speech does not extend to certain types of speech, including threats of violence. The Second Circuit has observed that First Amendment protection is forfeited where "the threat on its face and in the circumstances in which it is made is so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate and specific as to the person threatened, as to convey a gravity of purpose and imminent prospect of execution.

"In any event, as a matter of law, Aaron's icon constituted a true threat unprotected by the First Amendment. As is clear from the factual recitation above, virtually all material facts are undisputed. On their face, the words 'Kill Mr. VanderMolen' and the accompanying graphic cannot be viewed as anything but an unequivocal, unconditional, immediate threat of injury specific as to the person threatened, such as conveys a gravity of purpose and imminent prospect of execution.

"Likewise, the surrounding circumstances--including the effect of the icon on Mr. VanderMolen and school officials, Aaron's awareness of the school's position that a threat was not a joke, the absence of any factor to suggest that the icon was a joke and the general increase in school violence--establish that an ordinary, reasonable recipient who is familiar with the context of the icon would interpret it as a serious threat of injury.

"There is no merit to plaintiffs' assertion that questions of fact exist due to the conclusions of the Sheriff's Department and Dr. Lesswing that Aaron did not pose an actual threat and did not intend to carry out the threat. It is well-established that lack of intention or ability to carry out a threat is not relevant.

"Further, to the extent that plaintiffs attempt to argue that Aaron's conduct was purely out-of-school conduct, the undisputed evidence establishes that the icon was a threat to kill a teacher at the school, that Aaron circulated it among classmates for three weeks; that he had no reasonable expectation that it would not come to the attention of school officials; that when it did so, it caused a substantial disturbance at the school; that it is reasonable that it should have done so; and that Aaron had reason to expect that it would do so."

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74 comments

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The School did the right thing
I'm sick of these parents suing the schools and everyone else for their kid's actions. For once it would be nice if these parents held their kid responsible for their own actions. Situations like Columbine occurred because people failed to take the warning signs seriously. Since then awareness has grown and these things are now taken very seriously. The school acted in the proper way and it's just ridiculous that this is going to court.
Posted by Charleston Charge (362 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Think again
Unfortunately, they didn't sue for their kid's "actions." Their kid didn't physically do anything. By your theory anyone that had ever said, "I am going to kill you" while playing a video game or after getting hit with a snowball, would be guilty of a crime.

The parents are sueing the school board because they feel that the judgment of suspension against their son was premature and unfounded.

The icon he created is art and should be protected under the Bill of Rights.

Columbine occured because the parents were not tuned into what their kids were doing(in my unprofessional opinion). Yet these parents obviously are tuned in or they would have just taken the suspension sitting down.
Posted by loki_racer (63 comments )
Link Flag
Idiot
You are an idiot!
Posted by oodgie_boodgie (1 comment )
Link Flag
I Agree with Charleston
You know, our system is wonderful for tolerating so many different kinds of ideas. However, ALLOWing poor choices made in error and accepting intentionally-chosen poor choices are very, very different ways of thinking.

To those who differ with Charleston, imagine a classroom where several students regularly walk in and greet the instructor with, "I hate your F'ing guts and am gonna SMASH your face, man!" By some of the opinions I've read, many people seem to think that as long as these repulsive & threatening acts are not carried out, this is perfectly acceptable speech/behavior.

For those who think this should be tolerated, please tell me where you live so I'll know to not visit your neighborhood. Someone thinking this behavior is acceptable probably doesn't mind if I sit near their table as they're dining at their favorite restaurant ... and all the while, I'm sitting there picking my nose, burping, and passing gas in full view of your family while you're trying to enjoy your dinner. I hope these actions sound appetizing to you because in YOUR view, if it's legal, it's acceptable.

Try striving to do things the BETTER way instead of testing the lower limits of acceptability by seeing how many stupid, improper, vile, and inappropriate things you can get away with. If you don't see this line of logic, then there's no hope for our culture/society.

Tony

P.S.: No offense ... I’m sorry to state my case so bluntly and angrily, but frankly, I’m very, very tired of seeing inappropriate, trashy, vile, vulgar, and obscene behavior being so brazenly presented as art forms by our media outlets. They’ve been doing this for at least a couple of decades, now, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that children often behave as they do, lately. We reap what we sow, folks.
Posted by tonyny77 (10 comments )
Link Flag
The loser SHOULD be punished
Ok, forget the fact that many of us have wanted our teachers to come to great bodily harm. Creating an animated icon that depicted it is a little over the top. Not to mention, the teacher's reaction (if real and not an act) definately warrants what he got.

It is always irritating to me that parents are only too happy to let the school district teach their children the facts of the world but once the school attempts to step in and discipline "their child" they are so quick to run to the lawyer.
Posted by thenet411 (415 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You too.....think again....
They didn't "let the school district teach their children the facts of the world." The school district took it upon themselves to teach the kid a lesson. The story didn't say, but I am sure the school acted without even consulting the parents.

They are obviously trying to "teach their children the facts" by sueing the school. The school did something illegal and the parents are going to show the kid the facts about protection of free speech / art.
Posted by loki_racer (63 comments )
Link Flag
He did not deserve it
The kid is 15! So what if he made such an icon? So, he doodled! Big deal. Have you never watched kids doodle in notebooks? I've seen far worse thing doodled on notebooks.

Most importantly, some doodling (whether it is on a computer or a notebook) is not a threat. A threat is calling a person or walking up to a person and, well, threatening them!

Drawing something on a computer or a notebook is hardly a threat and should not be construed as such.

I think the teacher overreacted and that the school board did nothing but a disservice to that young kid.
Posted by paulej (1261 comments )
Link Flag
The School did an Asinine Thing
No one wants another Columbine.

At the same time, it's absolutely asinine to consider something as innocuous as an (admittedly tasteless) icon a credible threat to anyone.

We've gone too far, and in the wrong direction, in trying to make sure another Columbine doesn't happen. The underlying cause of Columbine was the complete failure of society to include those young men. Too many young people are ostracized, ridiculed, looked down upon, and disregarded. The only surprising thing to me is that it took so long before some of them finally snapped and struck back.

Does that excuse the Columbine shooters? Of course not. Their response to what they felt was intolerable conditions was inappropriate, to say the least.

The way to stop that from happening again is not to try to put a muzzle on all expressions of hostility. The way to stop that from happening again is to remove the reasons for hostility, and, when that is not possible or appropriate, to channel the hostility into productive or, at least, harmless outlets.

An icon on a computer seems harmless enough to me.

Anger is a normal part of the human experience. You can't stop anger by stopping people from expressing it; that just makes the anger worse, and is ultimately counter-productive. The people who think this absurd zero-tolerance policy being inflicted on young people simply trying to express themselves is accomplishing anything worthwhile need to take their heads out of the sand. The answer is not as simple as that, wish as hard as they might that it is.
Posted by chizotz (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I understand the point you try to make but..
I have to disagree. You see "An icon on a computer" as being "harmless enough to" you, but if I knew who you were and where you lived and worked don't you think you would be a little disturbed if I had an IM icon like that saying to kill you?

Maybe you would still feel safe and see it as being harmless, but I read the news enough that I would shrug it off as being harmless if I was the teacher.

" Anger is a normal part of the human experience. You can't stop anger by stopping people from expressing it; that just makes the anger worse, and is ultimately counter-productive."

I could disagree more. Anger management works, and if it doesn't people who express their anger in ways that are unacceptable they shouldn't be on the streets. Do you think assulting someone is an acceptable way of expressing your anger? is it counter-productive to stop a man from beating an old woman, or a racist from shouting racist comments? I don't I think that is not only productive, but brave and heroic.
Posted by mb_96_net (15 comments )
Link Flag
Insanity
I totally disagree.
Those Colimbine shooters were Insane! I do not know of anything that could have been done to convince them that they should not do what they did (they had no grasp of reality). They had an underlying insanity which made them violent. Some of the most violent people are bipolar and unfortunately I know this from first-hand experience as a child.

One could even argue that the doctors treating the insane in that case should have monitored their patient more closely. Aparently the medication did not work.
Posted by (20 comments )
Link Flag
a different view
Look at it another way.

Suppose that the graphic was a picture of your son/daughter.

Would you want the boy sitting behind them in class everyday knowing that he had made it.
Posted by perfectblue97 (326 comments )
Link Flag
Problem resolved?
Does suspending a student resolve the issue? Are there no other ways to discipline the student? Shouldn't the school do more to understand the issues between the teacher and the student before they pass judgement? Why does the student dislike or hate the teacher so much? Do other students have similar feelings but did not display them "publicly"?
Posted by acalan21 (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yeah like a suspension would do any good
if he intended to carry out the actions dipicted in his icon.
Posted by unknown unknown (1951 comments )
Reply Link Flag
EXACTLY
If he REALLY was GOING to do it he WOULD have! He wouldn't have dealt with his frustration with this 'teacher' by a simple icon.

Those who are GOING to DO, ACT!!! Those who are only letting off steam find other ways of letting off that steam, as this young man did.
Posted by btl-jooz (81 comments )
Link Flag
When to take action?
There is nothing wrong with taking action when action is warranted. But, I absolutely disagree with the idea of punishing a person so severely for "doodling".

Schools should watch for warning signs, but they should not hear tale of an icon, a picture, or anything else that disturbs them and then immediately take action to suspend a student.

They should talk to the student and help the student. Perhaps explaining politely that this is probably not something the student should be doing would be a little more constructive.

Does the school and teachers live in constant fear of the students? If so, then they ought to get out of the business and find other jobs.

Are they not properly trained to understand the difference between violent behavior and tendencies versus "being a 15 year old kid"?

It seems to me that the school board and teachers need to be educated.
Posted by paulej (1261 comments )
Reply Link Flag
I suspect they did much of what you ask
The article did not say so but I suspect they did some but not all of what you asked. I do not believe the judge whould decide for the school if they did not at least try.

I knew all to well kids whos parents believed they could do not wrong when it just was not true. It is more than posible the school administration got nothing but anger and smart mouth comments from both the kid and the parents.
Posted by penguinlust (4 comments )
Link Flag
GREAT POST!!!
You couldn't have said it any better.
Posted by btl-jooz (81 comments )
Link Flag
if the words said: "I want to Kill Mr. [Blah blah]"
it would have been protected under the 1st Amendment. the generality of his statement is what leads to the threat being a possibility, for he is expressing the idea of doing, rather than his private wish [maybe] of doing it.
Posted by Magamus (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
How old are you
The comment about his parents being tuned in is absolutly silly. First any sane parent would not have allowed him to put such a stupid icon on his system. Second, because the parents obviously did not know or care what he was doing this is a "CYA" thing. They screwed up so yell and scream and blame it on somebody else.
<br>
<br>
Please also quit screaming about 1st amendment rights. This kid is a minor. He is judged by law as not being old enough to decide for himself his rights.
Posted by penguinlust (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You need a reality check
Being a minor does not deprive you of your civil rights. Your parents have some rights and control over you but minors do indeed have First Amendment rights.
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
The kids are alright
Can we all stop pretending like these 'kids today and their dang computers' are ticking time-bombs? Teenagers are prone to say or otherwise express feelings that are considered violent or otherwise in bad taste. Not all of us have to deal with it but a middle-school teacher should know better. The parent's didn't help things by waving the 1st amendment, but the real fault is on the teacher and the school for reacting inappropriately.
Posted by MrPseudonym (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
AMEN to that!!!
n/t
Posted by btl-jooz (81 comments )
Link Flag
Someone give their head a shake!!!
Hello folks,

I just read this story, and I cannot believe the audacity of the school system. First off, this little icon was on his HOME computer. This computer was located in his home, not at school, it was connected to an ISP, not the school network. Therefore, the school has absolutely no business taking the sort of measures they did. They have no control whatsoever over what happens on a student's personal computer at home. The same applies to a student who owns a laptop. While there may be some leeway for those who connect their laptops to a school network, the school cannot just have their IT department waltz into a student's computer over the network and view what's on the harddrive. That is called invasion of privacy.

The same sort of thing applies to those of us in the workforce. Take me for example. I work for the federal government of Canada. Yet I have stuff on my home computer that would give the IT people in the government fits. BUT, since it is my own system, on my own network, connected to the internet through an ISP of my choosing (through a firewall of course!!), then my place of work has no business sifting through the files on my harddrive. Same thing with my new laptop. They have no business looking at what I have on it, since I own it.

Now, having said that about the laptop, obviously some descretion is required. Such as not viewing adult or other questionable material while at school/work, if connected to the network, abiding by the rules of that network, etc.

Anyway, the student in question could now sue the snitch for invasion of privacy, slander, defamation of character, emotional and psychological abuse, and probably a dozen other things I forgot. And the school? SHAME on them for not at least pulling this student into the office and talking to him about it first.

Just My $0.02Cdn.
Posted by ve7prt (6 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The buck has to start somewhere
"the school has absolutely no business taking the sort of measures they did. They have no control whatsoever over what happens on a student's personal computer at home."

If the student is doing something that could be percieved as a threat to another student or to a member of staff, then the school has to do something.

Suppose that this kid was unhinged (not that I'm saying that he is, just suppose), and he actualy went out and shot the teacher, and it came out afterwards that the school had known about the graphic but had done nothing. You can be your bottom dollar that the teacher's family would sue the school for not doing anything.

When guns are easily available and threats are made, the buck has to start somewhere.
Posted by perfectblue97 (326 comments )
Link Flag
I agree with you, but
here in the States the masses have been brainwashed into seeing things the other way. THIS particular incident is PROOF of that!
Posted by btl-jooz (81 comments )
Link Flag
i want to see the icon
URL?
Posted by brian g--2008 (25 comments )
Reply Link Flag
i want to see the icon
anyone have a URL?
Posted by brian g--2008 (25 comments )
Reply Link Flag
i want to see the icon
anyone have a URL?
Posted by brian g--2008 (25 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What Kind of Parents Allow this Type of Mentality?!
What Kind of Parents Allow this Type of Mentality?!

"Violence is not funny!"

"Just ask the soldiers in Iraq"

These are the same parents that let their children rule them and are Absent from the responsibility of being a Parent.

Then and only then when the kid becomes a sociopath they(the parents) blame society/everyone else for their Lack of Parenting.

These are the types of Parents the create Columbine Murderers.

Until the Minor becomes a Legal Adult the Parents are responsible for All actions of the minor. Society is not the parent, and neither is the school.

The Mother of this child should be spayed and the Father should be neutered. To protect society from creating anymore violent like minded individuals.

They should have Court Ordered Therapy for the entire family.
Posted by mluff (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yes, parents NEED to BE PARENTS, but...
what WILL happen to a parent if they 'spank' their OWN child as punishment?!?!?!?!?!???????

The parent who spanks is a FELON!!! How the #3|| are parents to punish their kids in MEANINGFUL ways? "Time-outs"? THOSE are starting to be PROVEN INEFFECTIVE!

This IS Society's fault! Society is what has allowed assinign laws to be made by even more heinous 'politicos'!!!!!!!!!!!

THINK about that!

I say we as a society need to go back to the old ways of NOT 'sparing the rod and spoiling the child'!!! I'd MUCH rather see a kid spanked when they're little as punishment for wrongdoing thereby teaching discipline and RESPECT for authority than pay through the no$e for pri$on$ to put all these spoiled brats in when they "grow up"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Posted by btl-jooz (81 comments )
Link Flag
Bunch of Idiots
Does anyone know the schools website and/or one for that idiot judge? I'd like to send the school, Mr. Vanderidiot, and that judge, a few goatse pics. :)
Posted by aabcdefghij987654321 (1721 comments )
Reply Link Flag
You forgot
the snitch ;)
Posted by btl-jooz (81 comments )
Link Flag
Where art thou parents?
Something needs to be done. Society as a whole is reversing everything that once was considered wrong and is now right. I do not understand it at all. I myself, 19 year old college student, am in disbelief over how this country is going downhill in social stanards. Stop emulating the wrong people. Parents need to put their game faces back on and find some common ground. Its called being a parent not a friend. Authority figure that your kids want to emulate, not a basketball player that sleeps with people other than his wife or Hip-Hop stars whom promote the wrong message... so sad.

As for what is going on within this story the online world and real world are to differnt places with different regulations. After all with a society like where sex and violence sells, who is to blame?
Posted by bobj123 (94 comments )
Reply Link Flag
without the picture how can we form an opinion
Without a picture this article is worthless.
How can we form an opinion without seeing it for ourselves? I say update the article with a picture.
Posted by gaz_bitplane (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
WHAT?!?!?!?!?!
This is ridiculous. The kid did a dumb, stupid thing. The parents were negligent in allowing it to continue. The teacher was an idiot for over reacting to the situation. The school board was... well... a typical short sighted, narrow minded school board. Give the student detentions or something but don't hold back his education because of a stupid prank. The only way I could possibly agree with the suspension is if there were other factors besides the icon that led them to believe the boy was a threat. If the icon was only one of a number of behaviours and signs then the suspension makes sense, but taken by itself, off school property, after school hours, the icon alone is NOT sufficient grounds for the action that was taken.
Posted by GWCVEGAS (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Well...
As much as I am glad to see some parents suing over BS suspentions, after reviewing the entire artice, I think that this could be a true concern. I am a strong believer of 'what happens far away from school should stay out of internal school affairs - such as suspentions', and i wish they would have only taken legal action, and not the suspention. If it doesn't hold up in court, it should't in school either.

Just my two cents,
advs89
Posted by advs89 (68 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not just an icon
Didn't any body whining for this kid happen to notice the fact that
along with the icon were the words "Kill Mr. VanderMolen". That is a
specific threat made toward an individual. Not a ha ha cutsy little
adolecent doodle by a slightly misguided but frustrated little
munchkin. Any school has the obligation to act on any threat made
directly to any of thier students or teachers. Terroristic threats are
not a matter of "Free speech" rights.
Posted by K.P.C. (227 comments )
Reply Link Flag
School Out of line
I've had a problem with Schools stepping out of line recently. Specifically schools trying to police it's students outside of the classroom. In our area schools have suspended students for MySpace postings as well and it's the same thing.

I don't think anyone would have a problem if he had created this Icon at school on a government owned PC or any other kid posting to MySpace from school. The problem here is that the PC the content was on was at his/their homes.

The school district has no jusidiction over what goes on in a private residence and as such should stay out of peoples business. If the individual or school has a problem with a students behavior outside of school and feel threatened, then by all means contact the police. They are the ones that have the jusrisdiction. Let them make the determination.

This school did this and when the police didn't do what they wanted they retaliated against the child and suspended him. It should have ended when the police found no cause for worry. Instead we end up with a power mad organization wanting to insinuate it's control into our homes, and not being content to let the police do it's job.
Posted by Stormspace (1028 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Be smart about it
Ok, so we've got the argument that it could be art or it could be a threat. Either way, if he didn't want to get in trouble, he should have written it in a journal. I'm still a college student, with plenty of teachers that aren't on my a-list, and if I've got a problem with them, I certainly don't say I would like for them to die, and especially not on the internet. If you want to be seen and heard, the internet is where to go. It's his fault that he's too stupid to understand that if you put it on the internet, people will see it, and it can come back to haunt you. If he made that doodle in a journal or even talked about it, thats one thing. One can at least understand that act. But putting it on the internet is like putting up a big neon sign saying NAIL ME TO THE WALL! No, this kid directly threatened a teacher in a way that the teacher could see and make evidence of, and the courts had already established that if it was a threat, it wasn't protected.
Posted by GrigoJoe (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
An opportunity to teach
Ideally, schools should view every circumstance as an opportunity to teach. In the case of this icon, the school had an opportunity to teach the student and his peers about the impact of the icon and the differences between saying "Kill soandso" in conversation and publishing it.
My impression is that the severe suspension sacrificed that teaching opportunity in favor of the currently popular "zero tolerance" canard.
On the other hand, given that U.S. students do commit murder in schools, the teacher certainly had reason to be anxious and the school certainly had reason to demand that the icon be removed.
Posted by hscohen (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Where's the immediacy?
I'm not a lawyer (although I am a law student), I really fail to see the "immediacy" of the threat. The icon is not advocating any immediate violence whatsoever, it is not putting the teacher in any immediate risk of personal harm. The district court judge is right in saying that the student's ability or intent is not the issue - but he doesn't get it right on what he does measure it against. The statement (or in this case icon) needs to be measured against the effect on the listener that may perpetrate the harm. Not the effect on the speaker - or the target.

Bad decision, and it should be overturned on appeal. I hope.
Posted by TheOnlyRealPerson (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
bullsh*t
your country your laws and u ppl are all bullsh*t... grew up america u bloody sue over everything.. freedom this and freedom that.. ur just a bunch of wank*rs.... The world dont give a sh*t about you!!!
Posted by kurtcroc (3 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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