Outrage of the Week: Autistic Boy Draws Stick Figure Gun, Charged with “Terrorist Threats”

Hi Readers — I leave you with this story to ponder this weekend. An 8th grade boy with autism whose mom says he has the mental capacity of a third grader drew a small stick figure boy pointing a stick-figure gun at a stick figure teacher. The charge?

Oh, you know if it from my headline. Good ol’ “making terrorist threats.”  Remember: When stick figures’ guns are outlawed, only outlaws (who are stick figures) will have guns. — Lenore

54 Responses

  1. I agree that the reaction is out of proportion to the image. However, I do think that the fact that he drew these images should be addressed in some way… not as punishment but to really understand why he drew it, where the image came from. Yes, autism is a factor in this, but it not a blank pass.

    Just my opinion after years of working in the public school system in special ed in autism support.

  2. The land of the free, and the home og the brave…

  3. Obviously the boy needs to be talked to, but punished?! I have a child with autism who has said some pretty outlandish things that are completely not acceptable — including talking about blowing something up. How many cartoons blow stuff up with no consequences?! His school has been completely understanding. I cannot imagine having to go through this, I hope the mother gets lots of support.

  4. when a 14 year old makes a drawing of shooting someone, and x ing out their eyes, then questions should be asked.

    But those questions should be of the “let’s figure out what’s going” type, rather than the “let’s figure out how to punish this kid” type. The fact that he is autistic amplifies the need, rather than mitigates it.

  5. I think the word “terrorist” no longer means anything…

  6. Keara, the boy drew a picture to express the fact that he was angry at the teacher. Depending on his verbal/communicative limitations, that might be the only way he’s able to express his feelings. My daughter is the same way. You’re right, autism is not a “free pass” — it is a severe neurological disability that needs a lot more understanding, as 1/100 children has it.

    “Making terroristic threats.” My God. The stupidity is just… overwhelming.

  7. I could somewhat ‘understand’ if the charge was regarding violence, but these people obviously have no clue about the meaning of the word terrorism.

    Let me spell that out: gun does not equal terrorist.

  8. Fox news didn’t report this properly. If you watch the video, the charge was actually ‘terroristic’ threats, not ‘terrorist’ threats. Those are legally different things. I’m not in any way shape or form defending the charge, but the charge has nothing to do with ‘terrorism’.

  9. Heh, I wrote and drew much worse, and at younger ages. In grade school, my school papers were littered with full on armed conflict, armies, tanks, planes, stick soldiers shooting at each other and being blown up. In middle school, I recall having drawn cartoonish representations of some of my school teachers, complete with profanity in the dialog bubbles (I actually got in trouble for that one). And later I wrote a “thanksgiving” story featuring a shotgun wielding maniac.

    I guess I’m trying to say a couple of things here. 1) This behavior is probably perfectly normal and will pass in time. 2) I grew out of it (and knew before third grade the difference between creative fiction and reality). 3) I’m glad that “terrorism” wasn’t in our vernacular.

  10. What a bunch of yahoos! Nothing better to do than chastise an autistic kid? Oh, maybe like, charging real terrorists and criminals of real crimes. I hope karma bites ever single one of those idiots in the ass, then kick em in the nuts…or tweek their nipples. Pathetic, insecure, paranoid, self-indulgent, ignorant, morons. Geeeez. What is the is world coming to?

    I don’t think the kid even really needs talking to, it’s cops and robbers, cowboys and indians. Remember those days when we used to run around with toy guns or sticks we pretended to be guns. Pointing and shooting at each other and anyone and everyone that came across us. Remember when those people looked, laughed and said “that’s cute” and made the gesture back?

    If anything, the parents should explain why all these idiots are punishing him. Tell him how they are all afraid to go out at night, meet new people, and be one with the community because they all think everyone is out to get them. That it wasn’t his fault they are scared of drawings from young boys. That much of the world these days are like that, and to ignore stupid people like that and live a happy productive life. I’m pretty sure he knows that shooting people for real is bad. He’s just confused why his drawing is.

  11. Reply to Ben – it’s not even a gun…its a drawing of a gun. Which makes it even more ridiculous.

    Reply to Rich – whether they said “terrorism” or “terroristic” threats, WE all know what they were feeling and thinking. Terrorist. Legally it’s a term that will keep them from getting into deep waters, but in reality it’s the same thing. Both meaning and the point.

  12. Stories like this make me weep for my profession.

    I have had kids draw picture or write stories about the first time they shot a gun, went hunting, got a rifle for Christmas. I remind them there is no such thing as an unloaded gun and gone on with my day.

    I’ve had kids write stories or draw pictures of violence that disturbed me – and I have refereed them to our councilor or social worker.

    I had one kid write a “What I want for Christmas letter that specifically mentioned shooting “bad guys”. I called his Mom and read it to her – he got rear end warmed and grounded.

    The difference is knowing the kids
    1. Stable kids, no major family problems and they know gun safety and show/mention it.

    2. Kids that are unhappy a good part of the time. Major family upset/disruption or worse we already are thinking we might be seeing signs of abuse. In one case the child is the highest functioning person in the family. Mom is MR, Dad might be or is at least low functioning. 1 Brother is MR and one is ED – My student 115 IQ – in 5th grade already being told he has to drop out as soon as legal to work since his brother’s can’t. Not legal abuse but not right.

    3. Was trying to push buttons. At another school he might have been walked out in Handcuffs. I did show the essey to my AP and she agreed with Mom’s punishment.

    Had a kid show up with a knife after a camping trip. Turned it in to the office to lock up. Dad was called to pick it up. Dad took care of it (boy did not follow Dad’s specific instructions to make sure the knife was put up properly. no school punishment.

    Another time one of my boys (Robert) bloodied the lip and nose of a classmate. Some bullies had threatened him. His friend John has come up behind him in the bathroom and yelled boo because the boys told him to.

    John no school punishment. Dad took him to task for “letting those other boys lead you by the nose and now you hurt your friend” Father insisted Robert not be punished for punching John

    Robert – no punishment but increased visits with therapist (He had been abused and new issues were cropping up. Family insisted)

    Bullies – 2 days ISS . We are pretty aggressive taking power away from bullies. It is hard to explain. You really have to see what happens when a bully starts.

  13. A drawing of a gun is just as good as a real one made of metal? The only times I remember drawings coming to life were in the old children’s book Harold And The Purple Crayon and the TV show Winky Dink and You!

  14. I agree with the others. Have a talk with the kid, whether by the parents or the school, but an autistic child at that level doesn’t need more.

  15. Ahhhh, great reporting Fox 5 news. As a Public Defender in Georgia, the charge is TERRORISTIC THREATS which simply means to threaten to do bodily harm to another. It has nothing to do with terrorists.

    That said. This, and 99.9% of the other crap we have to deal with coming from schools, is completely ridiculous. Welcome to zero tolerance. This is exactly why I pull rank as the senior attorney and spend as little time in juvenile court has possible.

  16. What is the deal with the “tribunal” is that a school thing or a legal thing? If he is being charged in criminal court what is the tribunal for?

  17. This reminds me of a time when I was tutoring a 4th grade student from Southern France. He didn’t speak English at all when he started school and one of my job functions was to help him communicate with his teacher by translating. Sometimes I had to explain cultural differences too.

    One day I arrived and his teacher pulled me aside to show me a picture he had drawn in art class. Guns, a machete, knives. I had to explain to him how this caused concern in American schools. He didn’t understand why it was a big deal, but was able to understand my explanation and didn’t do it again. To him, this was totally normal.

    At least they let me handle it and it never went further.

  18. @ Chris – The tribunal is a school hearing to determine his punishment at school – anything from no further punishment (kids are usually suspended until the tribunal) to expulsion. It appears that he is also being charged in juvenile court. Through juvenile court he could face anything from no punishment to commitment to a youth detention center. It’s two completely different forums and what is done by one has no bearing on what is done by the other. All kids who get in trouble at school are now punished twice. As much as I think home schooling is horrible for parents and children, I understand the desire these days.

  19. So we are all about gun rights and we can show up to meetings with the President or rally on Capitol Hill, brandishing our guns, but if our autistic kid draws a picture of gun it’s threatening and illegal. Ok, right, that makes perfect sense.

  20. Well, boys tend to terrorise their family and friends and just about everyone else in the vicinity from the time they can walk. I say., “Lock ’em up when they start walking and let ’em out when they’re 50”. Might make for better politicians. (Joking of course)

  21. Why is everything that comes natural to boys a crime? They wrestle and it’s called assault. They draw pictures and they’re called terrorists. We are sucking the life our of our valiant little warriors. If we ever get stuck in a real war again, we are going to be in serious trouble, because all our potential heroes will be either in prison or medicated.


  22. @julie Don’t worry, we can send along their helicopter moms. I guarantee anyone who tries to harm their kids will surrender quickly or risk being sent to a secret detention facility where they train you to never let anything bad happen to a child.

  23. Don’t even get me started about my 14yo aspie nephew who was expelled for being attacked by a classmate while holding a piece of his science project (flimsy rubber) – which was determined to be a “weapon” and triggered the “zero tolerance” policy. Holy crap. The appeal is going his way but he has missed over a month of school so far.

    I am actually disturbed by some of the comments above. Drawing a picture of someone with a gun, shooting it, is NOT scary, unless it is part of a general pattern. Those of us who didn’t do this in school were simply aware enough to know it wasn’t worth the teacher’s / parents’ wrath. We sure thought about it! It’s just an expression of frustration and powerlessness. It’s a bad idea to draw additional focus to these things. Basic law of human nature: what you focus on, you get more of. If I encountered such a thing, I would treat it as disrespectful and immature, and seek to switch the focus to something more positive. The same thing goes for most other “pretend gun violations” that kids are guilty of.

  24. I don’tn see what his disability or alleged cognitive rating has to do with this.

    Even if he has 180 IQ and a perfect record in the Boy Scouts, he has a right to draw guns without being molested or harassed by anyone regarding it.

    This is where I mention again that when my parents went to high school, most students brought real rifles to school, and practically all carried knives.

  25. Julie Colwell, I think I love you

    My youngest boy is in to weapons. He loves guns and swords and armor. Every night when I pray over him, he asks me to pray that he becomes “a knight and a warrior and a pilot.”

    His favorite things to play with (besides toy weapons) are figurines from Star Wars and action heroes. He makes them shoot at each other, because all the coolest Star Wars guys carry guns or light sabers.
    My son is 4.

    Thank God he will be going to school on an army base where such things are not frowned upon!

  26. “Terroristic threats” is a purely legal term that means making threats (verbal, written, or otherwise) of violence to another person. By drawing a picture of shooting the teacher, naming himself and naming the teacher, the child did make a threat of violence towards the teacher. Was it a serious threat? I don’t know. Should it have been dealt with differently? Yes.

    We are not opposed to guns or imaginative play violence. But we teach our children that you do not threaten other people in real life verbally with violence simply because you are angry with them. Threats of violence are to be taken seriously. Many people ignore threats of violence only to find them carried through upon. You do not make threats of violence (except in mutual imaginative play games where ALL parties are participating and pretending). You control your anger. Might they in anger one day draw such a picture even so? It’s certainly not impossible. And, if they did, I hope they would not receive a criminal charge, but would be reprimanded and disciplined for doing so, as it is not a proper way to behave.

    Had this child made previous threats of violence toward the teacher? Had he verbally assaulted her previously? I don’t know. Because poor reporting doesn’t tell me. But suppose he had? He’s 14, and he’s autistic, and as someone with autistic relatives and children of friends, I know autistic boys sometimes do violence when they are angry because they do not have the development to practice the kind of self-control one typically expects of a boy above the preschool age. An angry autisitc 14 year old boy could certainly hurt a teacher if he were to lash out violently in anger. For all I know, there may be a very legitimate cause for concern. But there is a better way to deal with such concern. Autism is not a “free pass,” but it requires a very different approach than treating the child like a juvenile delinquent.

    Zero tolerance does not allow for discretion. And it bears down hard on boys doing normal boy things, such as wrestling or make believe gun play. Even drawing a picture of shooting your teacher may be a “normal” boy thing, but normal does not always equal acceptable. A child doing that should be disciplined and taught why it is not acceptbale. But he should not be made into a criminal.

  27. I understand why this stuff triggers school involvement. If anything ever happened with this kid, people would jump all over the teacher and school administration for “ignoring the warning signs.” So every non-issue gets blown out of proportion.

    True story: A friend’s 7-year-old daughter stole a rubber band from a teacher’s desk. The teacher called her up to the front for something unrelated, and the girl’s conscience was weighing heavily on her, so she broke down, cried, returned the rubber band and said, “I wish I was dead!” She’s a bit high strung.

    Of course, this led to her being evaluated by the school guidance counselor, who asked her, “Have you ever thought about how you would kill yourself?” And she answered, “Well, mommy and daddy keep knives on the counter. I could stab myself. Or I could drown myself in the bathtub….” And on and on.

    Cue mother’s visit to the school. The mother pointed out that the guidance counselor had asked a very creative, intelligent little girl how she would go about killing herself, and got little more than an exercise in imagination. At that point, the girl was off in the corner drawing a picture of some flowers, the earlier incident having been forgotten.

    Fortunately, the school was satisfied with putting her on an elevated alert level (basically, a wait and see) rather than declaring her suicidal.

  28. @ Eric: ” If anything, the parents should explain why all these idiots are punishing him. Tell him how they are all afraid to go out at night, meet new people, and be one with the community because they all think everyone is out to get them. That it wasn’t his fault they are scared of drawings from young boys.”

    Havew those people themselves been evaluated for a possible diagnosis of autism. Fear to meet new people and the inability to form relationships is a red flag…

  29. That story about the little girl talking about how she’d kill herself is (almost) funny. So in school, kids are taught to answer questions by thinking about things. They’re taught that they’re supposed to try to come up with answers when asked questions. So the fact that a child is asked a question “How would you do X” and comes up with answers only means she’s doing EXACTLY what the school is trying to teach her to do! If she’d come up with a detailed plan, or said, “Yes, I think about it a lot,” that would mean something. That she was asked how she might do something and was able to come up with some very obvious answers only means she’s responsive!

  30. @Sky: “But we teach our children that you do not threaten other people in real life verbally with violence simply because you are angry with them.”

    This is exactly what a lot of commentators are missing. We’re talking about a child with a disability, and the cornerstone of this particular disability is disordered communication. Most autistic children simply don’t understand how their communication affects others because their brains are mis-wired. You can’t sit him down and have give him a talking-to and expect that he’ll suddenly “get it” any more than you could give a talking-to to a paralyzed child and then expect them to get up and participate in PE. It’s a disability. He isn’t choosing to be the way that he is.

    Also, those who don’t have an autistic child probably don’t realize that one of the ways we teach our autistic children is through something called social stories, which are much like what this child created. It’s not a nice story, but it’s how many autistic children make sense of the world and their feelings. We have a huge collection of them for our daughter — who, btw, expresses her feelings by drawing houses. She’s little right now so her houses are sad, or happy, or hungry, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she someday drew a picture of one house shooting another to express her anger. I guess I better pray that she isn’t in school and doesn’t label them with names, or I’ll be facing the same sort of legal nightmare this poor mother is.

    Also: autistic children aren’t any more violent than other children. It probably seems that way because any time an autistic child hurts someone it makes national news and fuels our fear of autistic people… much like any time a child is kidnapped, it makes national news and fuels are fear of the world.

  31. This makes me want to vomit. It also makes me want to forgo any “social” benefits having a child in school might offer and just homeschool so my kids at least turn out normal. Though – by the time my kids are adults, they may be the abnormal ones because they aren’t sheep and docile and mindless…

  32. The tip of the iceberg reveals itself. I was confronted at least one-half dozen times by my son’s stick figure drawings during elementary school teacher conferences. Although he is clearly a very sweet kid, his imagination was nevertheless practically criminalized. He was tested, referred to the school counselor, and treated with suspicion by teachers. None of this was good for anybody. But it goes on all the time an can happen to anyone.

  33. They just want to STICK it to him. Will tey STICK him in detention? Or STICK him in jail?

    It is a STICKY situation, hopefully sanity will prevail, or we may be STUCK up the creek without a paddle

  34. My question to you is ” What made him want to shoot his teacher”. Did she do something to him .To hurt someone may mean he was hurt by someone.

  35. @rodger this is an important question – but I have had an autistic student who regularly threatened to kill me and other teachers. “I’m going to kill you” meant “I’m very angry you won’t let me do everything I want to do and instead make me do school work”

    Mom just let him and his MR brother do anything and everything they wanted to do.

  36. Great indepth report…

    An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice

    By Russell J. Skiba
    Indiana Education Policy Center
    Policy Research Report #SRS2
    August, 2000


    Educators should read this and realize
    their fantasy world is not reality.

  37. Zero tolerance is dumb.

    A kid draws a stick figure gun pointed at a stick figure teacher. You know what an appropriate intervention is? Talking to the kid and figuring out why he drew it.

    We have some foam swords at home. If the kids were to sneak them into their backpack and bring them to school (or wear them as part of a pirate or knight Halloween costume) they would face a 10 day suspension. WTH? It’s dumb.

  38. My understanding is that the actual zero tolerance school law comes from the Federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which states that, to get federal funding, school districts have to have zero tolerance policies regarding bringing firearms to school.

    A firearm sends a projectile at high speed using a controlled explosion. It doesn’t apply to pocket knives, sporks, lego guns, water pistols, or even bb guns.

    Those interpretations have been done at the local level. Sometimes it has been states passing more extreme versions of zero tolerance, other times it has been the school districts enacting extreme policies, other times it is from a misunderstanding of their own policy, or a poorly defined policy that makes it unclear what is prohibited. What is clear is that schools only need to ban actual firearms in order to continue to receive federal funding.

  39. Its sad that we arrest a child for a drawing, but allow adults to make actual threats and incite people to murder (one example is the US muslim group threatening to kill the South Park guys). I guess we only go after people that can’t fight back so we can feel like we’re doing something. I find it insane.

    I’m an American living in Mexico, and I can’t see this happening here.

  40. Lovely, you finally found something in my backyard. This is ridiculous. And yes, he DOES need some sort of intervention, not strictly punishment.

  41. What I find is amazing is that we teach kids to find appropriate ways to express their anger, and then punish them when they do. It seems to me that I wouldn’t want my child to act out inappropriately, be direspectful or rude, or engage in any type of anger related violence. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that my child should have every right to draw a damn picture to express himself.

  42. Even if he didn’t have a disability, Shawn won’t be allowed to…
    Drive for two more years
    Vote for four more years
    Drink for seven more years

    But by gum, we’ll treat him like a hardened adult criminal if he does anything the least bit threatening!

  43. I think the school’s action is entirely inappropriate for a child with autism. That said, I am disturbed by the posters who think the drawing is just creative expression and no big deal. It was not just a random drawing of a weapon. It was a drawing that depicted the student shooting a specific teacher. Because it is an autistic child, and assuming it’s an isolated incident, it likely is simply that student’s only way of expressing frustration and anger, and should be addressed in a productive and non-disciplinary matter. But to simply dismiss the notion that it’s a big deal – to suggest that we are being over-reactionary by saying there’s a need to address it (again, clearly what this school is doing IS over-reactionary) – just makes no sense. Drawing guns in the abstract, playing with light sabers, running around the yard playing bad guys/good guys feels very different than the idea of seeing a piece of paper on which an adolescent has specifically threatened a teacher. I don’t see anything good or free-range about the latter.

  44. How about we have zero tolerence for overpaid yahoos running our school systems? Methinks somebody has waaaay too much time on their hands.

  45. Very sad! Yes this is a problem and it should be addressed but it should be addressed as a “why” it happened problem. Punishing the child in this way will only make the problem worse not better. Am I wrong in believing you should not be teaching special needs children unless you are properly trained and have the necessary skills to deal with special needs children?
    This teacher obviously needs a little more training, if I had a child in her class I would definately be requesting an immediate transfer – get her away from the children before she does more harm. Shame on her and the principal! IMO they have shown themselves to be completely unprofessional and not qualified for their positions.

  46. Ah, for grade school in the 60s when singing the classic “On top of Old Smokey/ All covered with sand/ There I shot my dear teacher/ With a red rubber band!” would get either rolled eyes or a stern look (depending on how cool the teacher was.) Lord, a kid who pulled that today would be on the first plane to Club Gitmo as a terrorist.

  47. @Jim, thanks for the memory. I had almost forgotten that one.

    I have heard about this story from many, many sources, and I remain appalled. The sad thing is that it is unclear if the response would have been any different had it been an actual third grader drawing the picture.

    It is a picture drawn by a child that seems to express some anger. Rather than file felony charges wouldn’t it be more appropriate to talk to the kid involved and find out what he is upset about?

    One of the manifestations of some forms of autism is difficulty expressing emotions. It may be that there was some random event that had upset him that day, or it may be that there was ongoing frustration with his teacher or something else at school. Either way the answer is better understanding, not criminal proceedings.

  48. Ah, for grade school in the 60s when singing the classic “On top of Old Smokey/ All covered with sand/ There I shot my dear teacher/ With a red rubber band!” would get either rolled eyes or a stern look (depending on how cool the teacher was.) Lord, a kid who pulled that today would be on the first plane to Club Gitmo as a terrorist.

    I’ve been walking my nieces to school lately. The other day, as I did, I guess I was in a cranky mood because I was singing under my breath “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to school we go! With razor blades and hand grenades hi ho, hi ho hi ho hi ho….”

    Cue the younger niece: Connie? We don’t sing that in front of the teachers, right?

    Me: NO! OMG, NO! Don’t!

  49. His autistic with a lack of cummication skills. He feels angry and i can sort of understand why he connets the two when its everywhere. Guns on the TV, newspapers and so on. If an autistic child said i wish u dead which many do don’t mean they mean it. Also if one can i wanna shot u now if this child is on lower end of spectrum would u be worrid? I think yes maybe express guns and knifes are wrong in the concept of using them to cause hard. Very hard with autistic child but worth trying. My son who has Aspergers and is obsessed with buses has also had an obsession with lefts and the doors of the left opening and closing. He would call for left watch doors open and run. He will scream if u try getting in it. So im sure your child isnt planing on shooting guns but just drawing something his stored in his head like a tv image.x

  50. I’m a pacifist now, but when I was in school? I drew a comic strip about a penguin man that fought the evil teachers (and killed them at times, though they usually came back). And what schoolchild hasn’t sung about “Joy to the World, the teacher’s dead”…? Come on! It’s just the passive aggressive behavior of people that have literally no power over their own lives.

    Though now a days (I’m only 26!) when you can’t bring nail clippers to school without getting expelled…

  51. He’s a kid. So he drew a stick figure with a stick gun. So what? He’s a kid. This is what kids do. Maybe you’re all too young to remember but cowboys and indians is still a kiddie favorite. Personally I hate guns. Even more than guns, I hate nonsense.

  52. Children Above 180 IQ…

    I found your entry interesting thus I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…

  53. my god what has this country gone to terroristic threats please i think its an excuse for some jobless person a job to monitor these poor people

  54. OMG! Thank goodness I homeschool! For art, my 5 year old regularly draws pics of himself and his best friend with guns shooting at something or each other! My brother did the same thing years ago, and he turned out fine.

    Boys LIKE weapons! They always have, and they always will! They make them feel powerful, just like the fascination with dinosaurs – they are dead, the kid is alive and therefore more powerful. Like the dinos, it is a phase for the most part – if not, they go into law enforcement or the military. Of course, with the current mentality, I guess we won’t have people doing that in the future, and not because we don’t need them.

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