SPECIAL REPORT: The police chiefs from Washington Township and Westwood this week urged that an 11th grader who self-published a book last year about a bullied youngster who turns to murder be temporarily removed from school for his and others’ safety following a social network scare this past week.
The chiefs’ letter is the latest development in an emerging district battle between parents and police on one side and school administrators on the other over how to respond to a perceived threat while protecting the First Amendment rights of each student.
More than 200 fellow students stayed home from Westwood Junior/Senior High School on Tuesday amid two days of heightened police security after rumors circulated that there could be trouble.
The fears were raised by drawings on the boy’s Facebook page that included Tuesday’s date and other elements that some said could have been considered threatening when taken in the context of what’s written in the book.
The book “contains references to killing students in a school environment,” Washington Township Police Chief Glenn Hooper and Westwood Police Chief Frank Regino wrote in a letter hand-delivered to Westwood Regional School District Superintendent Raymond Gonzalez on Tuesday.
“It is therefore the opinion of both the Twp of Washington and Westwood Police Department that [he] be removed from the school environment for his own safety and the safety of the school community and placed in an alternative school environment,” it says. “This should be maintained until [he] has had appropriate psychological treatment and evaluation and is able to return to a traditional environment.”
Because the boy hasn’t violated any laws, the decision on how to proceed is strictly up to the district. Following meetings among administrators and concerned police officers from both towns, the boy has remained in school.
It’s an issue faced by police and school officials nationwide.
A Westwood Regional official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the situation “got out of control by rumors” and took on a life of its own.
“People are jumping to conclusions,” the official said. “That is not how/what a school can react to….The kid has been checked out.
“I understand why parents are worried, but [he] never made threats. All students’ rights have to be protected.”
An attorney with experience in such cases agreed.
“This is really a tough case for administrators,” the lawyer said. “Cops are just about reducing the threat without a view to students’ rights.
“There’s a bigger picture here of what happens when a teen’s fantasy arouses fear and loathing and maybe a little mass hysteria among parents,” the attorney said. “I just wonder if it is simply that this kid has an overactive imagination.”
Some parents and law enforcement officers told CLIFFVIEW PILOT this week that they see things differently.
“There’s a day-care center right next door,” one said.
“At the end of the day, it’s about his safety, too,” said another.
The main character in the book, published a little over a year ago, is a football player who gets picked on by other youngsters. He is mentored by the ghost of a character involved in a school shooting that claimed the lives of 125 students. In the end, the football player stabs another character to death.
Little notice was made of the book until last month, when a school official saw the author — who doesn’t play organized football — wearing a varsity jacket.
The name on the jacket was that of the book’s main character, a parent with knowledge of the incident told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .
Police were notified.
An initial evaluation determined that the boy had been bullied when he was in middle school and that he wasn’t an imminent danger to others — but that he should be monitored, with collaboration among district officials, local law enforcement and the boy’s parents to keep him from having access to weapons, a source said.
Concern subsided until last week, when another school official saw a pair of drawings on the boy’s Facebook page.
One featured a calendar with the Dec. 23 date highlighted and other words and markings that — placed in the context of the book’s contents — prompted concerns.
Police presence at the school was intensified on Monday, the 22nd, and again on Tuesday.
On Monday night, school officials emailed parents saying that an unspecified rumor had been checked out.
“There were no facts,” one parent told CLIFFVIEW PILOT that night.
“Keeping all parents in the dark is absurd,” the parent said. “This information has started to circulate via social media and text messages to parents.
“Most parents are keeping their kids home tomorrow due to the lack of communication by the administration,” the parent told CLIFFVIEW PILOT on Monday.
More than 200 of the school’s 1,000 or so students called out on Tuesday, multiple sources confirmed.
The boy ended up not attending school that day, either, district sources told CLIFFVIEW PILOT .
The Facebook page has since been taken down.
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