Sandy Hook controversy: Is it wrong to sympathize with a killer?

A high school student is suspended for writing a poem in which she says she "understands" why Newtown gunman Adam Lanza committed murder

Courtni Webb
(Image credit: Screen grab via NBC News)

"I understand the killings in Connecticut. I know why he pulled the trigger," Courtni Webb, a 17-year-old high school student, wrote in her notebook. Those words, which were part of a poem she composed outside of her class assignments, raised a red flag for her teacher and principal and consequently got her suspended from San Francisco's Life Learning Academy for violating the school's zero-tolerance policy for violence. While Webb defends her controversial poem by saying she was simply exploring ideas of helplessness and darkness that she believes are the cause of tragedies like Sandy Hook, "schools like Life learning Academy aren't taking any chances," says Erin Sherbert at SF Weekly. But does suspending a student for empathizing with a killer as a purported literary exercise go too far?

Webb, for one, is careful to distinguish between the "threatening language" her school believes she used and the actual content of her poem. "I didn't say I agree with it, I simply said I understand it," Webb told NBC. "I feel like I've really been made to almost look like a monster by my school and I don't appreciate that at all." Her mother echoed her sentiments, telling NBC that her daughter "didn't threaten anybody."

Still, after the terrible tragedy at Sandy Hook, the school has every right to feel on-edge. The real problem, says Madeleine Davies at Jezebel, is how Life Learning Academy chose to discipline Courtni:

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School officials have once again taken the hard line (suspension and possible expulsion) as opposed to taking the time to talk to Webb about her relatively harmless poem — a poem that's probably been written in similar variations by teenagers across the country — or consider that artistic expression is a way to exorcize dark thoughts and is not necessarily indicative of a person's real life actions."

A closer look at the poem, which contains other lines such as "If I can't be loved no one can," and "Society never wants to take the blame," shows that if the poem Webb shared with the media is indeed the same one for which she was punished, "it seems more likely that she was suspended for daring to show empathy and understanding in a complex issue that American society would like to make a matter of black and white, of good and evil," says Davies.

Regardless of whether you agree with the school's logic, this dilemma demonstrates that "an ongoing discussion of how to prevent another Sandy Hook doesn't begin and end with the president or Congress or state governments," says Jordan Sargent at Gawker. "It trickles all the way down to attitudes endemic to our society."

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