Dark writings, nervous academics

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, committed by a student who fantasized about death in his short stories, university professors are reporting “dark writing,” reports the Wall Street Journal. But it’s very difficult to tell who’s really a threat.

. . . some experts worry that these measures pose legal or ethical risks. Psychologists caution that it is nearly impossible to predict future violence. Professors are being asked to do something for which they are untrained — assess a work for signs of a troubled psyche.

At the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, creative-writing student Steven Barber wrote a first-person story about a creative-writing student contemplating murder or suicide. Instructor Christopher Scalia, alarmed that the story’s instructor was named Mr. Christopher, called the administration. (The instructor is Justice Scalia’s son.) A search of Barber’s car found three guns; the Navy vet has a concealed carry permit, but the college bans guns on campus. Barber was committed to a psychiatric institution for a weekend, where psychiatrists concluded he was sane and posed no threat. A few days later, he was expelled.

At Valdosta State in Georgia, T. Hayden Barnes created a collage that he posted on his Facebook page protesting plans to build what he called the “Zaccari Memorial Parking Garage.”

On May 7, 2007, Mr. Barnes, then a junior, found a letter from President Zaccari under his dorm-room door saying that Mr. Barnes presented “a clear and present danger” and that he had been expelled. Attached was a copy of his collage.

In order to apply for readmission, the letter said, Mr. Barnes would need to present correspondence from a psychiatrist indicating that he wasn’t a danger to himself or others, as well as documentation proving he would receive therapy during his tenure at school.

Barnes appealed the expulsion and was reinstated without explanation.

Barber, a 3.9 student at Wise, also appealed his expulsion but was turned down. At his next college, he plans to write about rainbows and puppies.

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  1. Sigivald says:

    I think the real lesson here is “never take a creative writing class”.

  2. This worries me because my daughters like to write dark stuff, vampires and death, blood, etc. My girls like to write poetry about death and depression. They are not depressed, but like being dark. They joined a writing club, provided by the local library and all the teens in the group write like this. I guess I should encourage them to write butterflies and rainbows.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    It’s hard to imagine an adolescent not writing “dark”. Among other things, it looks grown-up.
    “Write what you know.” That means summer camp and student council and the prom and the job at Starbucks.
    Or how you got dumped good and hard. Or your folks split up.

    Or get real creative–for a kid–and go dark.

    Hell, at this rate, you could get in trouble for simply carring around “All Quiet on The Western Front”, or “The Thin Red Line”. After all, who but a potential murderer and nutcase would want to read about this stuff?

  4. Margo/Mom says:

    Edgar Allen Poe

  5. Gutless weenies masquerading as academic administrators.

  6. A school shooting at the University of Virginia over a hundred years ago caused the president there to have a breakdown. He left for Boston and founded MIT.

    Of course, muzzle loading blunderbusses are just not as lethal as your standard semi-auto pistol today, but the slight instability of men in that age group is nothing new.

  7. Mark Roulo says:

    I guess I should encourage them to write butterflies and rainbows.

    I’d say maybe encourage them to write what they want for themselves, and write what the teachers/school expects for the teacher/school. This will be good practice for college, too 🙂 This is an especially good lesson for *boys* to learn prior to going off to college.

    -Mark Roulo

  8. Stephen King

  9. The entire “true crime” genre.

    > Gutless weenies masquerading as academic administrators.

    Courage is a virtue that ought to warrant some notice. The administrator who’s “courageous” gets no recognition for their courage and for what? Taking a chance that one kid, indistinguishable from the thousand or tens of thousands that’ll come this way, won’t blow up and destroy the admin’s career?

    Far more pragmatic to *not* take a chance and display that deep commitment to the safety of the kids by meticulously following zero tolerance policy no matter how stupid you think it is or, if anything, go overboard with the policy. After all, an irresponsible application of those zero tolerance policies must indicate an even deeper concern for the safety of the kids then even the school board that enacted the policies.

    You shouldn’t have to be willing to take a chance with your career by simply displaying common sense but that’s the situation in the public education system.

    If we want different results it’s the system that’ll have to change because I don’t anticipate the supply of courageous administrators expanding all that much.

  10. I agree with Mark Roulo. There is no real fundamental reason that students need to be able to write about murder and death in university. Much like work where people expect you to be dressed in a certain way, the eyebrow piercing crowd realizes they either need to remove the piercing, find a particularly open corporation, or work at a Hot Topic or a record store. Writing topics in high school or college need to be appropriate.

  11. I’ve been on a panel, speaking to young journalists at USC, and this question came up. I lambasted the chicken-hearted teachers and administrators who’d censor the budding Quentin Tarantinos, the James Ellroys, the Joss Wheldons and got applauded by the students. One teacher/advisor came up to me afterwards, and told me that every year, he makes note of the “scary kids” in his classes. I asked if any of them had ever been arrested, etc., and he told me that 2 of them had joined the Marines–proof positive of their murderous intents.

    Who ARE these idiots that teach?

  12. Some of these kids don’t have a clue what “appropriate” is: their father is lazy and never works, their mother stays drunk all day, their sister is whoring herserlf out, etc. High school and college writing is littered with BS where students couldn’t draw on their own experience and so they have to make up empty, banal stories that show no evidence of mature construction or creative expression. I’m all for teaching kids how to behave in the workplace and how to write for a job but we need to distinguish between professional writing and writing for entertainment instead of trying to kill two birds with one proverbial stone.