Thursday, February 2, 2006 Print This | Email This     

Family sues after creative writing assignment lands teen in psych ward

By Lisa Sweetingham, Court TV

(Court TV) — Minnesota high school student David Riehm bristled at his creative writing teacher's stinging comments at the bottom of his assignment.

"David, I am offended by this piece. If this needs to be your subject matter, you're going to have to find another teacher," Ann Mershon's critiqu e began.

The 17-year-old's satirical fable concerned a boy who awoke from a wet dream, slipped rear-end first onto a toy cone, and then had his head crushed "in a misty red explosion" under the tires of a school bus.

"I'm actually a little concerned about your obsessive focus on sex and potty language. Make a change — today!" Mershon warned.

David did not make a change. The poetry, scripts and songs he loved to write typically earned him praise from friends and family. Mershon's rebuke only roused him to rebel against her in two more essays over the course of the term.

"Bowling for Cuntcheson," a vivid dream-within-a-dream about a boy who finds a gun under a church pew and shoots his teacher, "Mrs. Cuntcheson," so frightened Mershon that she alerted the school administration.

"I felt threatened and violated by this thinly veiled fictional account of revenge against me," Mershon wrote in a statement to authorities. "I immediately had anxieties, which I have struggled with since reading the story. It scared me, it hurt me, and it also makes me very concerned for David."

David was suspended on Jan. 24, 2005. The next night, three men — a Cook County deputy sheriff, a state trooper and a social worker — showed up at Colleen Riehm's home on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation with a court order to seize her son and commit him to a psychiatric ward 150 miles away in Duluth. (David's stepfather is Native American, but David is not enrolled in any tribe.)

With no room at the juvenile facility, David was temporarily placed in the adult unit.

"He was scared to death," David's attorney told Courttv.com. "He didn't know what was going to happen from one minute to the next."

A physician later determined David was neither mentally ill nor dangerous, and more than 100 letters of support, written by classmates, faculty and parents, were presented at a court hearing, his attorney said.

David was ordered released from the hospital 72 hours after he had been taken into custody. His mother received $6,000 in medical bills.

Colleen and David Riehm filed a civil suit last month against his former teacher, the principal, and other county officials alleging numerous violations of David's constitutional rights, including freedom of speech, due process, and protection from unreasonable seizure, false imprisonment, and negligent confinement.

"Throwing a kid into a mental hospital for what he writes and not for what he does is unconscionable and unacceptable," Riehm's attorney Peter Nickitas told Courttv.com. "I would expect to see something like this in a book by George Orwell or Franz Kafka or an excerpt from the 'Gulag Archipelago,' but this happened in Minnesota in 2005."

It has also happened in Texas, Kansas, Louisiana and public schools across the nation.

"I wish I could say that this is an isolated incident. I wish I could say this shocks me," said David Hudson, a professor and First Amendment Center research attorney. "But the sad thing is, there have been similar incidents where students have been punished for creative writing."

Hudson is the author of several books including "The Silencing of Student Voices: Preserving Free Speech in America's Schools" and a September 2005 First Amendment Center report on "Student Expression in the Age of Columbine."

"To me," Hudson said, "it sounds like a classic Columbine overreaction."

Security vs. free speech

Colorado seniors Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris expressed their revenge fantasies in class assignments, videos and online journals as a prelude to their shooting rampage, killing 13 people before committing suicide at Columbine High School in 1999.

In response, many schools have adopted a zero tolerance policy on drugs, weapons and, in some cases, speech.

Has freedom of expression become a common casualty in the post-Columbine era?

Hudson's report points to cases in Texas where a middle school student was held in juvenile detention for six days in 1999 for a Halloween essay for which he received an "A"; in Kansas, where an honors student was expelled in 2000 for her poem "Who Killed My Dog?" about seeking revenge against someone who killed her dog; and in Louisiana, where a student was punished in 2001 for a two-year-old drawing he created at home that pictured his school under attack.

"Certainly you have to keep students safe," Hudson says. "You cannot sacrifice student safety, but there's got to be a way to protect student speech in addition to protecting safety. I don't think you should brand them as the next Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris."

In David's case, he had "no juvenile delinquency record, no history of mental illness, nor any history of mental health counseling," according to his complaint. But in other cases, that information alone may not mean much to concerned school officials.

"There is no accurate or useful profile of 'the school shooter,'" says a 2002 U.S. Secret Service report on "Preventing School Shootings."

The report cites a study of 37 school shootings involving 41 attackers in which rich, poor, failing and excelling students were among those who took arms against their classmates. All were boys, and few had been diagnosed with any mental disorder before the incident.

Riehm's case, however, is also aided by the fact that the authorities allegedly made no effort to determine whether he needed counseling before he was seized in front of his mother.

Cook County High School principal John Engelking did not return calls for comment.

Mershon, who is reportedly teaching abroad and was unreachable, told the Duluth News-Tribune last year that she could not legally discuss her side of the story.

"All I can say is that it's been really painful," Mershon was quoted as saying in the article. "I know I did what I needed to do, and the district did what it needed to do. Mandatory reporting is a pretty serious issue. It's not something that is taken lightly."

Cook County City Attorney William Hennessy stands by the county's actions.

"We don't feel that we've done anything significantly wrong," Hennessy told Courttv.com. "Look at what happened at Red Lake. That's the kind of thing we're trying to prevent."

Hennessy was referring to the massacre on an Indian reservation in northern Minnesota in March 2005, when 16-year-old Jeff Weise killed nine people before he shot himself at Red Lake High School.

Nickitas says such comparisons are unmerited in David's case.

He also points out that three months lapsed between the time David turned in "Bowling for Cuntcheson" in October 2004 and the time his teacher read it in late January. During that period, David had not acted on any of his fictional revenge tales, nor was he ever in trouble at school.

An effort should have been made to sit down with David, to get him counseling, or at least talk to his mother, Nickitas argues.

Hennessy agrees that conferring with David's mother may have been a prudent choice.

"But I don't know in this case if it would have made a difference. She wasn't very cooperative," he said.

Colleen Riehm declined to be interviewed.

After graduating with a 2.98 GPA from Cook County High, David Riehm has started a new life at college, his attorney says.

As a teen, David surmised in one of his essays that he wrote about "violence, language, sexual content" because it was ever present in the news, movies, and cartoons he watched. Now, as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, majoring in film development, he may have the opportunity to broaden his world perspective while learning to express himself through film.

"Usually I am thinking about life in general," David wrote, "and you know, life is not G-rated."

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