So, why have I been paying so much attention to the Poole case, in the face of conflicting evidence over whether or not his disturbing journal was fictional? As I have said, similar cases have happened before. The specific case I had in mind happened, I’m ashamed to say, in my own country. Here’s the story.
In December 2000, after Columbine but before the 9/11 attacks, a 15-year-old boy attending Tagwi Secondary School in rural Eastern Ontario was given an assignment to write a story, which he read aloud to class. The story, entitled Twisted, featured a bullied youth setting out to blow up his school.
“I guess no one knew he had woken up at 5:00 a.m. and had jimmied the lock to one of the back doors … In addition, in his bag he was carrying 13 packages of C-4 (explosives) and a detonator.”
The student, who had been taunted by many of his classmates because of a speech impediment (including a beating that got other Tagwi students charged), and who lashed out verbally at the taunts which followed, was promptly arrested and spent 37 days in a juvenile detention facility. The school also expelled him. Later, his younger brother lashed out with verbal threats to taunts from his own classmates (at a different school), and was himself arrested. Police raided the kid’s home and found no guns and no explosives. Neither kids had previous histories of crime or violence.
The case attracted national attention, including interventions by civil libertarians and a number of famous Canadian authors, including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. Even Stephen King leant his support. The student (who could not be named because of his status as a minor) was called a persecuted writer, and the organization for persecuted writers, PEN Canada, took up his case. They ran afoul of the Ontario Teachers’ Federation, who stood up for the teachers derided in the case, and who shook their fingers at the Arts community for jumping in without considering all of the facts.
Charges against the student were dropped on September 27, 2001. He was allowed to return to classes, although he petitioned to be placed in a school outside the Upper Canada District School Board’s territory, “beyond the reach of his enemies.” The student sued the district school board and his school’s principal for $800,000, although I have found no record of a settlement. Four years have passed since the case received national attention, and things are quiet now.
This case differs from that of William Poole in a number of ways. For one thing, the story the student wrote was actually part of a school assignment. Whatever Poole wrote, it wasn’t for any class that we know about. The student was also much easier to cast in a tragic light, facing harrassment from school bullies and spending Christmas and his birthday in jail. Finally, the student maintained the support of his parents against the activities of the school board and the police department.
But the case unveils a number of disturbing similarities, including the propensity for other students at Tagwi Secondary School to run the student down in the midst of all of the national attention. Check out this article, which ran in the National Post on January 27, 2001:
Twisted furor over schoolboy essay
Many say jailing not a case of censorship
Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and other successful authors will meet in Ottawa tomorrow to trumpet their support for an Ontario schoolboy charged with uttering threats after he read a violent monologue in class. The fundraising event is called “Artists for Freedom of Speech.” But students and administrators at the Tagwi Secondary School in Avonmore, Ont., say this case may have little to do with free expression.
“I think it’s always easier to focus on the individual who [says he’s] oppressed,” says Art Buckland, the Upper Canada District School Board representative for the Avonmore area. “You can imagine a defence lawyer playing up the free speech angle. He loves it.”
“This kid did not go to jail because he wrote an essay,” says Cornwall Standard-Freeholder crime reporter Frank MacEachern, who broke the story of the child’s arrest on Dec. 12.
“I do not think that the Crown attorney’s office or school officials are stifling free speech. Some of the writers who are rallying in defence of this kid on Sunday should learn a little bit more.
“I doubt some of them would be attending this conference if they had sat in on the bail hearing.”
“Everything went by the book,” says Tagwi student Kristina Jackson.
“The school is getting a bad rap for hysteria but it had nothing to do with that. Principal Mayer warned [the boy] he couldn’t make threats … If something bad had happened, what would people have said then?
“He’s getting offers of scholarships,” Kristina says. “We try so hard in school and then this guy goes and [allegedly] utters death threats and suddenly he’s going to some event with Margaret Atwood.”
“I wonder if she’d feel the same way if his story were about blowing up just the female students in the school?” asks another student, who declined to have his name printed.
Some of the similarities here may be the case of school officials being rocked back on their heels by the antagonistic attention they received. No doubt the case was more complicated than the media initially made it out. It’s likely that what keyed the student’s arrest was the fact that the student made the mistake of, after writing Twisted, threatening the students who had taunted them. But the facts remain that charges against the student were dropped. The kid had no explosives or weapons, no history of violence or crime. And yet the community lashed out at him. The National Post didn’t have to look very far for people willing to deride him. He stood out. He stood apart. And he wrote something down that alarmed people. And he paid for it.
The student would be nineteen, now. He’s likely graduated and perhaps he’s gone to college. I don’t know, since the story has died and there has been no follow-up. Avonmore, where Tagwi Secondary School is located, seems quiet and peaceful, having largely forgotten the controversy that visited them before.
Dare I hope that this will be the case for Winchester, Kentucky, four years from now?