Zachariah Paul's idea of fun is writing his version of top ten lists. But the one he wrote about his high school athletic director got him into big trouble.
For example, Number 6: "He has to use a pencil to type and make phone calls because his fingers aren't able to hit one key at a time."
And Number 9: "He is constantly tripping over his own chins."
Zach, a 17-year-old junior and admitted wise-acre, sent an e-mail to his friends from his home computer. He admits the list is derogatory, but insists he didn't threaten violence against the athletic direcor.
"It wasn't something we wrote for him to read," he says. "It was just entertainment."
But when someone posted the list at school, Zach got slapped with a 10-day suspension.
William Andrews, an attorney for the school, says, "I'm not sure that in 1999, with what has happened, unfortunately, throughout this country, that it is possible to overreact at this point when we're talking about safety concerns of children."
But Vic Walczal of the Pittsburgh ACLU disagrees. "What you've got is mindless authoritarianism," says Walczal. "They're doing it because they're simply offended. This has nothing to do with public safety."
In the wake of Conyers, Ga., Littleton, Colo. and other school shootings, the ACLU is investigating hundreds of complaints from students around the country who claim they were unfairly suspended or expelled for actions school officials consider to be inappropriate.
Attorney Andrews says, "This speech went to a personal, vulgar attack on the person."
Zach's parents are suing the school for allegedly violating his civil rights. His mother, Joanne Killion, says, "I was very upset that he was rude, but on the other hand, he does have the right to air his opinions."
Zach is now back in school. But educators around the country are grappling with the dilemma: How to provide maximum school safety without jeopardizing student rights.
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