A Washington state school district acted appropriately when it expelled a student for writing a violent poem about a fictitious school shooting, a federal appeals court ruled.

The case weighed a student’s First Amendment right of free expression against school officials’ needs to provide a safe campus environment in the wake of shootings at several high schools.

The decision hands school officials, who are struggling to cope with campus violence, the authority to expel a student if the school holds a reasonable belief that student may pose a danger.

“Parents and the public expect schools to protect their children, and that is getting more and more difficult in modern times,” said Tyna Ek, the lawyer for the Blaine School District, which expelled the student. “This says that schools can act when there are danger signals without knowing for sure that violence is going to happen.”

The decision July 20 from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco overturned a lower court’s ruling that Blaine High School “was not acting reasonably” when it expelled student James LaVine, whose poetry detailed the methodical mass killing of 28 at a school.

The student’s lawyer, Breean Beggs, said the decision could chill student speech and perhaps give educators leverage to punish students for their ideas.

“I was hoping to have it made clear that students cannot be punished for the content of their work,” Beggs said.

LaVine, a 16-year-old junior at the time, was expelled for 17 school days in 1998 after submitting his poem, “Last Words,” to be critiqued by his English instructor at his school 110 miles north of Seattle. Among the violent imagery was the phrase, “I drew my gun and . . . Bang, Bang, Bang-Bang. When it was all over, 28 were, dead.”

In the poem, the unidentified narrator later fears that he or she will kill again and then commits suicide.

Responding to a suit brought by the student, U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein of Seattle ruled last year that LaVine’s poem “was not a sincere expression of the intent to harm or assault” and therefore was protected speech under the First Amendment.

But the appeals panel said the school acted properly when it expelled LaVine on fears he might carry out what he had written. While the poem viewed by itself is protected speech, the school district had a right to expel LaVine because school shootings were indeed occurring elsewhere in the country, the court said.

The circuit panel noted that, in hindsight, it may not have been necessary to expel the student–given that it was later determined he had no violent intentions. Still, the court said, schools need to react to potential violence in today’s sometimes dangerous campus environment.

“Although this is a close case in retrospect, we conclude that when the school officials expelled James LaVine they acted with sufficient justification and within constitutional limits, not to punish James for the content of his poem, but to avert perceived potential harm,” Judge Raymond C. Fisher wrote.

LaVine wrote the poem less than six months after Kip Kinkel’s deadly shooting rampage in Springfield, Ore. LaVine’s teacher was concerned and school administrators called the police. Eight deputies and a canine dog went to his family’s farm outside Blaine.

In ordering the expulsion, the school district said LaVine had a “disturbing” background that included a fight with another student and a domestic violence complaint against his father. The district said LaVine dressed differently than other students and “fit the profile” of other homicidal students.

LaVine, who is now 19 and graduated last year, said in an interview that he didn’t know why he wrote the poem.

“When I write, I just get a feeling. Whatever comes out, comes out,” LaVine said. “There’s not really any reason behind why I wrote it.”

The case is LaVine v. Blaine School District, 00-35303.