Court Reviews Student's "Disturbing" Essay

Less than two weeks after the deadliest shootings in modern U.S. history, members of a federal appeals court had skeptical questions in the case of a student who was suspended over a story she wrote about shooting and killing her math teacher.

A lawyer for former Roswell High School student Rachel Boim on Friday asked members of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to strike the suspension from her record.

Boim's attorney, Allan Galbraith, insisted Boim's journal entry was pure fiction.

"Can an uncommunicated work of fiction serve as the basis of punishment by the government?" Galbraith asked.

But Judge Stephen Limbaugh said he had difficulty believing the "disturbing" work was fiction.

"This writing is targeting a particular person and talked about a gun," Limbaugh told Galbraith. "I thought it was a very scary fiction, if that's what you say it is. If it was fiction in a story, she should have kept it at home."

The conflict arose in October 2003 when a teacher from Roswell High School confiscated a notebook with the story written by Boim and reported it to school administrators.

Boim's story describes a student going through the school day hiding a gun in her pocket. As her math teacher takes attendance, the student prepares to shoot him. At the end of the story, the student wakes up, having only dreamt the incident.

"I loathe him with every bone in my body," she wrote. "Why? I don't know. This is it. I stand up and pull the gun from my pocket. BANG the force blows him back and every one in the class sit there in shock. BANG he falls to the floor and some one lets out an ear piercing scream. Shaking I put the gun in my pocket and run from the room."

The ninth-grader later was suspended for 10 days for violating school rules that included disrespectful conduct and threat of bodily harm.

Boim, who now attends a private school, wants the suspension expunged from her school record. But a U.S. District Court last year ruled Boim was not entitled to have her record changed.

The three-judge appeals court panel heard 30 minutes of oral arguments from Boim's attorney and lawyers for the Fulton County School District. They issued no immediate ruling. Their decisions typically can take weeks before they are released. Boim did not attend the hearing because she was attending school.

To reverse last year's District Court ruling, the appeals panel would have to determine the school district violated Boim's First Amendment right to free speech by suspending her.

Two of the panel's members voiced concern over the dangers of school violence and seemed to disagree with the characterization by Boim's attorney that the story was just fiction.

"What do you think would have happened if ... this young woman ended up shooting and killing the math teacher, what situation would we have then?" asked Judge Joel F. Dubina. "With what happened at Virginia Tech, you think those writings (of shooter Seung-Hui Cho) would be a work of fiction?"

In a case that gained immediate international notoriety, Cho shot to death 32 people and then took his own life April 16 at Virginia Tech.

Eric Brewton, representing the school district, said school officials acted cautiously because they had no way of knowing if Boim intended to act out her story. Brewton asked the panel not to overturn the District Court's ruling so school administrators would not have to worry about whether they will be sued each time they take action to protect students and staffers.