Not much happens in my hometown of Cary, a largely white, upper–middle class suburb that is about an hour northwest of Chicago. However, Cary recently gained national attention when Allen Lee, a senior at Cary-Grove High School—where I graduated from last year—was charged with disorderly conduct for things written in a “free writing” essay. The assignment instructed students to “write whatever comes to mind” and “not to judge or censor what [they] are writing.”
Part of Lee’s essay says, “So I had this dream last night where I went into a building, pulled out two P90s and started shooting everyone…then had sex with the dead bodies. Well, not really, but it would be funny if I did.” It ends on a particularly ominous note: “As a teacher, don’t be surprised on inspiring the first cg [Cary-Grove] shooting.” Particularly in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting (which happened before Lee wrote his essay), this is disturbing stuff.
Of course people point out that the assignment clearly instructs students to write “whatever” they want. But that doesn’t actually mean that students can write whatever they want. If Lee had clearly said that he planned a school shooting, nobody would be up in arms. But he was much vaguer than that, which means everyone is acting simply on subjective judgment.
Nevertheless, the teacher, Nora Capron—who is in her first year teaching—did exactly what she was supposed to do: go to her superior, the chair of the English department, who then went to her superior, the principal, Sue Popp. Popp proceeded to call the police. Meanwhile, a Facebook group called “Support Allen Lee” has sprung up. On its wall, there have been many attacks (almost exclusively by Cary-Grove students and alumni) on both Capron and Popp, neither of whom, in my view, acted improperly. Both were faced with a tough, unique situation, and both brought in higher authorities. Even if Popp asked the police to arrest Lee—and there’s no evidence that she did—it was ultimately the police’s decision. And it is obvious that they made the wrong one.
Lee’s essay was inappropriate and creepy, but the question should be, what is best for society—throwing him in jail, or getting him counseling? The police’s error doesn’t show a single officer’s poor judgment, but rather a flaw in general philosophy. Statements like, “I think it’s appropriate that we do everything possible to make students safe,” from Jill Hawk, the district superintendent, and “You can never be too careful,” from Ron Delelio, the Cary chief of police, are telling. They seem to believe the imperative of safety must never be weighed against the costs to liberty. Meanwhile, Lee has been expelled from school indefinitely, is facing (minimal) jail time, and, possibly most significantly, has been discharged from the Marines enlistment program.
Having said that, something should have been done. Lee’s writing indicates that he might need help. Perhaps his writing was just the normal ranting of a teenager, but perhaps it shows something inside him that needs to be confronted. The police should not have arrested Lee; instead, the school should have met with his parents, possibly mandated counseling for him, and shown him that that type of writing is not acceptable.
Reactions on both sides of the spectrum have been extreme: While some want Lee to go to jail, others glibly dismiss his writings as simply “free speech.” However, free speech has its limits; just like you can’t shout “bomb” while walking through airport security, you can’t write “school shooting” for your English class. On the other hand, one relatively benign mistake should not a life make or break. This column has previously endorsed extremism over moderation, but this case requires pragmatism over dogma. Cooler heads will likely prevail eventually; I highly doubt that the charges of disorderly conduct against Lee will stand. But in the end, although Cary-Grove narrowly averted its first school shooting, it did suffer one casualty.