"Zero tolerance" = "Zero common sense"

Here's more evidence that Columbine and other fears have unhinged some people's brains.

An 18-year-old high school student in Kentucky named William Poole has been charged with "making terrorist threats" for having written in his private journal a story in which zombies overrun a high school. He did not name the school, anyone who goes to or works at his high school, or anyone in Clark County. It appears his nosy grandparents read his journal and turned him in.

Most disturbing money quote:
Even so, police say the nature of the story makes it a felony. "Anytime you make any threat or possess matter involving a school or function it's a felony in the state of Kentucky," said Winchester Police detective Steven Caudill.
Let's get this straight. Any matter involving a school or function is a felony? Someone pointed out that, by that criterion, keeping your high school yearbook could be considered a felony. It's possible that Mr. Caudill misspoke, but it's also clear that he's brain dead, and so is are the prosecutors and judge:
On Thursday, a judge raised Poole's bond from one to five thousand dollars after prosecutors requested it, citing the seriousness of the charge.
Thank heaven I don't live in Clark County in Kentucky. Perhaps we should send Mr. Caudill and this judge The Zombie Survival Guide. It might actually educate him.

Also, thank heaven I went through high school in the late 1970's, rather than now. If I were a high school student today and behaved today the way I did then, no doubt some ignorant paranoid twit like Mr. Caudill would want to lock me up. Why? Well, for one thing, I used to play a lot of Dungeons & Dragons, and we all used to revel in slaughtering (imaginarily speaking, of course) huge numbers of imaginary enemies. (In fact, during my senior year, my friends and I used to play D & D at lunch or on breaks at school--and I went to a Catholic high school. The priests never stopped us or even seemed the least bit concerned.) For another thing, I used to decorate my notebooks with amateurish drawings of Conan-like warriors wielding huge swords and battling various monsters, as well as one rather disturbing image that represented my concept of what Sauron looked like.

In other words, I was a fairly typical geeky teenaged male who read a lot of science fiction and and fantasy, collected comics like a fiend, and played games that let my imagination go wild. Despite all that (or perhaps because of it), I turned out OK, having made it through graduate school and medical school and now taking care of patients while running a fairly productive cancer research laboratory. Personally, I attribute a lot of my imagination and writing skills to my geeky past, but schools don't seem to see it that way these days. I really pity kids in high school now who are like I was then. Not only do they have to deal with the usual problems of being a nerd or geek or whatever they're calling it these days, but now they have to worry that the school administration will think they are early stage mass murderers.

More on this here, here and here.

Via rec.arts.sf.written.

UPDATE: Based on OutEast's comment (and the fact that my B.S./urban legend detector, like OutEast's, had indeed twitched a little bit about this story--although apparently not strongly enough), I did a little more digging between meetings this morning. As mentioned by OutEast, blogger a.r. reports an anonymous source who claims Poole had been in trouble before and that the story had nothing to do with zombies, but rather contained a plan to take over the school, with weapons lists, recruits, and instructions how to breach security. Normally, I would take an "anonymous source" about as seriously as the aforementioned story about zombies, but another story in a local paper reports the story in this light as well. One thing I've noticed in looking at this again is that there appears to be at least one person, maybe more, commenting anonymously on blogs defending the school, for example in a.r.'s post and also here. (Perhaps one of them will find my blog and actually post a comment here with verifiable information. I would be most grateful for that.) Others have pointed out the other side of the story.

In my defense, I did do a couple Google searches on this before posting (probably because of the light tingling of my B.S. antennae), and was unable to find much more. However, now, after refining my search terms, I was able to find additional information. Also, it was late at night when I wrote this. I didn't read all the comments from the bloggers' posts I referenced, which, if I had seen them, might have set off my B.S. detector a little more strongly. Oh, well. At least I always try to clear things up when it is pointed out to me that I might have screwed up.

BOTTOM LINE (for now): This story is very likely more complex than I led you to believe. Deep down, I had suspected that it might be, but perhaps my memories of high school geekiness led me to jump too rapidly to conclusions. (Geez, this time Nate really will take away my super-secret Skeptics' Circle decoder ring, as I feared in the past--based on a previous incident of insufficient skepticism--and never let me host again...) On the other hand, if the other version of the story does turn out to be correct, I can't understand how this kid's lawyer would have coached him to or let him make these sorts of statements to the media (or even let the kid speak to the media in the first place before the court hearing). Such statements could only hurt Poole in court. It's possible that the kid talked to the media without consulting his lawyer, but I tend to doubt it, given that he was in the juvenile detention center at the time of the interview and would have had to go through channels to receive any phone calls or visits from reporters. I also can't understand why the police wouldn't have simply issued a brief statement that gave a little more information about what was in the story, not enough to undermine their case but rather enough to refute Poole's claims.

I'm also very puzzled by the lack of followup on this story by the local media. I know that if something like this happened near where I live, it'd be all over the news for days, even though, being near a large city, there would be plenty of other news to crowd it out. In fact, I'm puzzled that this isn't a national story, as it's just the sort of story that usually gets picked up by the national press, at least since Columbine. Yet, here, in this small town in Kentucky, where presumably life is more tranquil and stuff like this presumably rarely happens, there doesn't appear to be a single followup story after the kid's interview--even though the arrest happened a week ago. (At least, I can't find any legitimate news stories more recent than the one I originally cited.) Such a lack of followup sometimes indicates that the story may, in fact, be an urban legend, but I don't think so in this case. The news accounts appear to be too specific and too easy to verify through the police and courts. I also searched Snopes.com and couldn't find anything about it.

It may very well be (as it often is in these cases) that the true story is somewhere between the two competing stories. Whether it will turn out to be closer to the police account or Mr. Poole's account, however, I have no idea at this time. Perhaps the police did over-react to a story, or perhaps this kid really did make specific threats. I'm beginning to suspect that the zombie story might be a red herring. Poole stated that the police had reacted to "one of my stories" and then mentioned the zombie story. Perhaps there were other stories in his notebook, and it was to one of those that the grandparents and police reacted.

I guess all I can do is to promise to try to keep an eye on this story as it develops. When the kid is arraigned in court, the prosecutor will have to produce some sort evidence to justify trial. Sooner or later, the entire text of the story will have to be made public. The truth will out, and we'll find out if this really is a case of an overzealous police department and prosecutor overreacting to a kid's flights of fantasy (as Poole claims) or if Poole really is a Dylan Klebold in the making, as the prosecutors seem to be claiming.

Finally, I stand by my criticism of Mr. Caudill, for saying what he did. By the criteria he listed, writing a story about school (or, as some have pointed out, having a school yearbook might be grounds for being charged). If that's not what he meant to say, he should retract it now. If that is what he meant to say, he is indeed a moron. I also still think that "zero tolerance" = "zero common sense," as there plenty of other examples that are much better documented (for example, the recent incident of a 6-year-old girl busted by a teacher for giving her friend a plastic bag full of dirt and clovers because the poor girl's idiotic teacher couldn't tell the difference between dirt and marijuana), even if this particular incident ultimately turns out to be a bad example.


I found this. Dated Februrary 25, it states:
A junior at George Rogers Clark High School has been charged with terroristic threatening, a felony, after notes outlining possible acts of violence against students, teachers and security guards were found. No direct threats were made against named people, Winchester police Detective Steven Caudill said. William Poole, 18, of 426 East Broadway was being held on $5,000 bond yesterdayy at the Clark County jail. Caudill said Poole's family was cooperating with police. Principal John Atkins said he received a dozen or so calls from concerned parents yesterday.

ADDENDUM/UPDATE 03/10/05: Still more information can be found here, as Poole was arraigned.


  1. his grandparents, who were they out to get?

  2. Hmmm... Excuse me for being skeptical, but a brief search of the web reveals that there is very little in the way of independent news stories on this; most of what's out there is verbatim quotes from other sources, almost all of which is rightwing blogs echoing each other across cyberspace. There's the one news site you link to (to which the accused lad spoke himself), and - well - basically nothing else. One blogger appears to be questioning the veracity of the report (http://bynary.blogspot.com/) at least to the extent of trying to find out more. He's not got much to offer (just some unsubstantiated sources alleging that the lad in question has a 'history' and that the 'story' was no such thing) but... well... this makes my bullshit alarm ring.

  3. I'm the person who's posted some information that the story wasn't a story, it was a list of information about the school security and people he wanted to solicit for a gang and that he has prior offenses. Orec questions my sources. That's my school. I know Poole. My source on the story information is his sister, who read it and says that it's a listing of school security cameras, etc. My source on his previous charge of terroristic threatening is something that is well-known at school, since the police picked him up there the other time, as well. The kid he threatened to kill (during a fight where he had the kid in a choke hold in view of teachers and kids)and the kid's parents wanted the charges pressed after that threat. Call it bullshit if you want, but I hope you follow the trial so you'll see the truth.

    As to Orec's question about followup, THIS was the followup story. The initial story carried the real information about the journal contents and no mention of any zombie short story defense.

  4. Rest assured, this is not urban legend. This is my town. Violence at school or among students is not as farfetched as one might think. We have had a student take a gun to another student's house and shoot/kill the student who lived there. We have also had a student who brought a gun to school and was talked out of doing anything with it by a teacher. Another student purposefully ran over a student in a subdivision with a group of students watching. All in this town withing the last ten years.

    People are scared at my school -- students and teachers. And yes, the people talking are anonymous because they don't want to be targeted by anyone else who might be involved.

    Our principal has been talking to students and parents in addition to police, trying to calm the situation. But people are scared just the same. You would be too, if you went to school here or had a student in school here.

  5. Anonymous: You'll forgive me if I must remain skeptical of your story, just as I have become skeptical of the Poole's story.

    Why am I skeptical? Well, besides your being anonymous, thus making it possible that you are anybody at all (even Mr. Caudill), you have failed to produce a verifiable source (as requested) to substantiate your claim that Poole was arrested before for terroristic threats (something that would have overcome the skepticism that your anonymity naturally produces). I also find it very odd indeed that neither news story mentioned that Poole had been implicated in making terroristic threats before or had ever been involved in violence. To me that would seem to be a very important bit of information, and its absence raises a red flag to me, just as much as the holes in Poole's story caused others to question it, leading me to question it.

    Bottom line: Both sides of the story smell fishy to me now. I will, however, try to keep an eye on the story as it unfolds and see which is closer to the truth.

  6. Orac, I haven't checked out the story, so I don't know the validity. But, as far as it's not being national news, here's my thoughts:

    Pre- Columbine & Pre DC Sniper
    things of this nature were reported on ..they were shocking and sensationalistic. Now, people have to actually LOOSE their lives OR have a huge hero effect to be reported on.
    Oklahoma had the first school shooting after Columbine, I only heard about it because Fort Gibson is near Tulsa, it did not, as far as I saw, hit the national news ... no body died.

    Last year, a student stabbed another child on a school bus, there was a death, but because it was personal & not general threat to the school student body, it did not, again, as far as I saw, hit the national news.

    Our news media isn't reporting on the NEWS, they are only reporting on the sensationalist news, the headline makers, the things that catch people's attention. Not the things that educate, enlighten, inform & protect.

    If this is in fact news, should it be in the news, yes. Will it be? No, there are no hero's that stopped a well organized plot & there has been no tragic death. The media does not see it as 'newsworthy'.

    And people wonder why urban legends abound in cyberspace!

  7. First of all, thanks for the link. Second, yes, there is much more to this story (so I am led to believe) than the original news stories would lead you to believe. I have very little doubt that my source is valid, outeast. Also, this is a true story. I have personally called the school and the local TV stations to confirm it. No, no one is saying much because there is an ongoing investigation. I haven't yet called the Winchester Police Department because I'm just really not interested in being told "I'm sorry, but we aren't commenting on the case right now." outeast, you are rightly skeptical. I am too. I haven't been able to verify the claims of the anonymous poster (who apparently has posted here as well). I'm still working on it, but Idaho is a long ways from Kentucky...

  8. Well, I went all over the web looking for some more info also. All I had was that channel 18 and the channel, what was it, 27? stories. I tried the newsgroups, too. Nothing. The claims of commenters claiming to go to that school also don't sound so credible to me. Two different kids who go to that high school in a small town in Kentucky find their way to the same blog? Orac, are you a Kentucky-based blogger who writes about smalltown life down there or something? All I can say to credibility is that channel 18 has a far more complete story, has apparently talked with the Poole kid, and done some research of their own. Note that their story includes the line that the "nature of the threat" means that the police had to take it seriously. That's vague, and could apply as easily to drawings of security cameras as to a story about zombies. So I have to go with what I have from the best sources that I have. There is probably a lot more to the story, but nobody has it yet. As for why the silence about the Poole kid's troubled past, there could be any of number of reasons, including that he was a minor when those incidents took place so the record is sealed. Or they could be baloney. Regardless, the story has made its way around the Internet, so it is growing, and that growth demands some answers. I think the rest of the tale will come out in time. But I won't apologize for writing about it or joking about it.

  9. Poole just turned 18. That's why his earlier records aren't public.

    And I'm not saying you must believe me, just consider an alternative to taking POole's word it -- that perhaps the the grandparents, the cops, the school administrators and the judge (who have seen the evidence, which usually isn't made public before a trial) all feel there was a threat. The only evidence to the contrary in the news reports cited is Poole himself claiming he wrote a s story instead a a plan to raid the school with an armed gang.

    Just consider the possibility.

  10. How about verification from the Student Press Law Center?


    Ky. high school student jailed for making "terroristic threats" in writing

    Student says he was arrested for fictional short story about zombies

    © 2005 Student Press Law Center

    March 4, 2005

    KENTUCKY – A high school junior was arrested, jailed and charged with a felony Feb. 22 for making terrorist threats in writings found at his home, Winchester County police said.

    George Rogers Clark High School student William Poole, 18, was arrested and detained after his grandparents found materials he authored and called police, said Clark High principal John Atkins.

    According to a Web report from a TV station in Lexington, Poole said the material his grandparents found was a short story meant for his English class.

    "My story is based on fiction," Poole told Lex18.com. "It's a fake story. I made it up. I've been working on one of my short stories, [and] the story they found was about zombies. Yes, it did say a high school. It was about a high school overran by zombies."

    Atkins disputed Poole's account.

    "The boy's version was that he was writing a story about zombies and it was for a portfolio entry that was going to be turned in at school," Atkins said. "The teachers aren't aware of any kind of project like that. The word 'zombies' was not mentioned in the writings."

    Atkins said investigators and school officials were concerned because they perceived "a direct threat" to Clark High School in the writings, although the school was never mentioned.

    "It did not mention [Clark High School or school officials] specifically but it did mention 'the high school,' and how many teachers were there and how long it would take the police to arrive once they received an emergency call," Atkins said. "It implied very strongly that it was referring to this school."

    Atkins said law enforcement agents showed him the writings, which resembled "notes and a plan. ... It sounded to be kind of an advertisement or recruiting to meet a goal, and a goal was stated which was very negative about the school."

    Poole said he was not threatening anyone, according to Lex18.com.

    "It didn't mention nobody who lives in Clark County, didn't mention [Clark High School], didn't mention no principal or cops, nothing," Poole said.

    Under Kentucky law, a person is guilty of terroristic threatening in the second degree when they threaten to "commit any act likely to result in death or serious physical injury" to students, teachers or employees of a school.

    "A threat directed at a person or persons or at a school does not need to identify a specific person or persons or school in order for a violation of this section to occur," the law reads.

    Poole has been detained in the Clark County detention center since he was arrested. A court hearing is scheduled for next week, Atkins said.

    –By Campbell Roth

  11. Interesting, except that, sadly, this story in essence doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know from the previous stories, other than a better definition of the "terroristic threatening" law. It just tells both sides in a single story, which is helpful, but doesn't reallyadd any new information.

    I await more information. I'm not rejecting your explanation out of hand. I simply don't take the word of anonymous commenters without some sort of verifiable source. Also, given the many well-documented cases of "zero tolerance" turning into zero intelligence, I always tend to take the police's explanation with a grain of salt, at least until it all comes out at trial. It's a good thing Poole is 18, because that means it will all come out at trial--if there is a trial.

    Why do I say "if" there is a trial? Well, I can't help but wonder if the police didn't overreact. Even if everything you say is absolutely and 100% accurate to the point that it makes my questioning appear foolish, I would tend to lean towards the conclusion that Poole probably needs psychological care rather than jail. It's quite possible some sort of deal will be made, if that's the case. (At least I hope so.) In fact, I find the "terroristic threatening law" cited in the article to be disturbingly vague in its definition, particularly the part where it says that a student doesn't have to mention a specific school or person to be guilty of "terroristic threatening." And why does the law apply only to schools? Why should "terroristic threats" defined so vaguely be any different if aimed at schools, rather than other institution?

    Perhaps it is that law that is the problem in this case. You've convinced me that Poole probably did more than just write a zombie story. On the other hand, you've also (probably unintentionally) made me very concerned about the law in Kentucky with regards to this "terroristic threatening." It seems like it's playing fast and loose with the First Amendment--a bit of post-Columbine madness, no doubt. I was always taught that for threats or incitement to lose their First Amendment protection they had to be fairly specific and produce an imminent danger. I just don't see that here so far. After all, even in the worst case scenario for Poole, I have yet to see any evidence that he's done anything more than write a half-assed plot. I've yet to see any evidence that he did a single thing to act on it. Personally, I'm very disturbed that one's personal journal can be used in such a way. What if he was just fantasizing and using this as a way to work out his anger? Hell, if this "terroristic threatening" law had been in effect where and when I grew up, I might have found myself locked up for some of my more out there writings.

  12. Orac, I apprecciate that you aren't just taking me at my word. A little skepticism is a good thing; and I fully realize that much of what I said can't be verified by anyone who is fully objective. That's one reason I sent the SPLC link -- while I've been saying some of these things, there was no objective source out there to say the teachers couldn't support Poole's story and much of the other information. The SPLC story at least gives people a verifiable source for some of the information I posted.

    I just wish people had been as skeptical of Poole's assertions as they have been about everything else. People are taking his word for it that he just wrote an innocent story without that same healthy skepticism (when there's really no story at all, which yes, I know I can't prove at this time). He's become a hero for the First Amendment, which, for those who know him, is sort of comparable to the idea of Charles Manson becoming a hero to the nonviolence movement.

    Also, some information that I have posted elsewhere, which is verifiable if you want to contact the school and order copies of their literary magazine, the Inkwell -- this school has published stories and artwork with violence. Those kids weren't arrested and charged with terroristic threatening.

  13. With all due respect, you need to learn a bit about logical fallacies. Perhaps such knowledge would help you avoid using them in the future.

    Your Charles Manson comparison is an obvious example of the logical fallacy known as the false analogy. It sheds heat, but no light, on the subject. Charles Manson was a mass murderer and you likened making Poole a hero of free speech to making Manson a hero of the nonviolence movement. Your analogy would only be valid if you could show that Poole is a as big an opponent of free speech, as Manson, given his murderous tendencies, is of nonviolence. You cannot, and didn't even try. I suspect that your emotions have clouded your ability to think clearly about this.

    In any case, I stand by my opinion that the Kentucky law on "terroristic threatening" is disturbingly vague in what it proscribes. It in effect criminalizes speech that is not clearly connected with specific planned incidents of violence and seems to give schools a special privilege with respect to such speech. I can see all sorts of potential for mischief from a law like this. Unless it can be shown that Poole had actually acted on what he had written, even minimally, or that he had made more specific threats than what I've seen described so far, I have a very hard time supporting throwing him behind bars--even if his writings contain exactly what you claim they contain. Even in that case, I rather suspect that Poole is more in need of psychological care rather than imprisonment.

  14. I agree with you, Orac, that Poole needs psychological intervention. I've never said that he should be locked up and the key thrown away. And certainly, developing a plan for taking over a school (because it isn't a narrative of any sort) isn't nearly as bad as actually going through with it. Other students have been questioned about this. Some of them indicate that they were recruited by Poole for this endeavor and some of them Poole attempted to recruit. He DID act on his plan by beginning the recruiting. Of course, this hasn't been covered by the media. (But hey, stick around and wait for the trial and you will see som eof this come out. Unless you are, like one of the first guys blogging about this "bored now." I'm certain he won't be willing to follow through when the time comes and the evidence is shown to reveal that this kid was plotting, not writing. He won't be making any apologies for jumping to conclusions and not giving what Poole said as much healthy skepticism as he gave to the motives of the cops and grandparents.

    I feel sorry for Poole because he needs help, not because his freedom of expression has been restricted.

  15. I used to work at this school. Trust me, it is a messed up place.

  16. As an aside, you made a comment about the Kentucky Terroristic threatening law. I am not a lawyer, but recently I have been gaining skill in searching though the various state legislative websites and looking up the actual text of laws.

    There are three laws dealing with Terroristic threatening in the Kentucky Penal Code, 508.075, 508.078, and 508.080. These laws are not restricted to schools, but the primary purpose appears to concern schools. These laws also cover all government buildings.

    508.075 deals with statements of intent to place a "weapon of mass destruction" in a school, school bus, or government building. Specifically, a person is guilty of a Class C felony if that person "Intentionally makes false statements that he she or another person has placed a weapon of mass destruction...." or has in fact placed a counterfeit weapon of mass destruction intentionally and without lawful authority. A conterfeit weapon of mass destruction may be placed WITH lawful authority with the written permission of the "chief officer of the school" as part of a training exercise. A person is not guilty of Terrortistic Threatening if they are alerting authorities of a possible threat and innocently believe the threat to be true.

    Section 508.078 is similar, but covers threats of death or serious injury in schools or government property, not weapons of mass destruction, and is a class D felony.

    Section 508.080 covers the rest of the state other than schools, school functions, school buses, and government buildings and includes false statements made to cause evacuation of buildings. This is a Class A misdemeanor.

    Reading the laws, it strikes me that the prosecution has to show that Poole actually threatened someone in order to be found guilty of terroristic threatening in the first or second degree. This doesn't mean he can't be charged with breaking the terroristic threatening laws, but charging someone for an offence and proving the offence occurred are different things entirely.

    I don't think the laws would allow a prosecution to easily win a case against a group of role-players.

    BTW, great site.


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