David Riehm’s sex- and violence-filled essay not only offended his teacher, it landed him in an adult psychiatric center.
By Lisa Sweetingham
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 critique 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.”
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 history of mental illness, nor any history of mental health counseling,” according to his complaint.
“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.
Cook County City Attorney William Hennessy stands by the county’s actions.
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.
According to Nickitas an effort should have been made to sit down with David, (why?) to get him counseling, (why?) or at least talk to his mother (why?).
Social Control, that’s why.
Get him on record as someone with head problems, which would have facilitated his psychiatric confinement without all the ensuing protest. What, he’s crazy? Ok, sorry, never mind.
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.”
David Riehm’s singular
gift crime is an enhanced consciousness, period. Good luck with that kid, god knows you’ll need it.