Ethics Quiz: The Strange Case Of The 2902 School Shooting Victim

Who knows what dark thoughts lurk in the imagination? And does it matter?

Who knows what dark thoughts lurk a teacher’s imagination, unless he tells us? And should  it matter if he does?

Patrick McLaw, an eighth grade language arts teachers at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Cambridge, Maryland, has been placed on indefinite administrative leave by the Dorchester County Board of Education and the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office. This measure was taken after it was discovered that McLaw had several aliases, two of which he has used to write novels. One of those novels was about the largest school shooting in the country’s history, set in the year 2902.

Because these books terrified parents, apparently, Dorchester County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Henry Wagner felt it necessary to announce that  the Dorchester County Board of Education had moved swiftly, saying, “We have advised our community that the gentleman has been placed on administrative leave, and has been prohibited from entering any Dorchester County public school property.” That’s not all that happened. McLaw was taken into custody for an “emergency medical evaluation.” The same day,police swept Mace’s Lane Middle School for bombs and guns.

This sounds like a Kafka novel. Of course, if Kafka had been a middle school teacher in Cambridge Maryland, parents probably would be afraid that he was going to turn their kids into cockroaches.

How can this hysterical reaction to a teacher’s novel be justified, legally, logically or ethically?

Your Labor Day Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz  involves yet another possible variation on “The Naked Teacher Principle”:

Is there an “Alarming Novelist-Teacher Principle” ?

This would be a principle dictating that writing certain kinds of novels may be reasonably deemed antithetical to a teacher’s role. (I am not going to deal with the alias issue in any detail, but it probably has significance here as well. Aliases suggest dishonesty and lack of trustworthiness, a desire to deceive. In the case of pen names, however, aliases may be practical and prudent.)

This is a hard one, and I have no confident  answer.

Is the theory that the teacher is a danger because he has such fantasies, as the search and the medical examination suggest? Or is the theory that students will get deadly ideas from his novels?

Or are parents simply justified in not wanting their children taught by individuals who imagine school shootings, even in the future?

My gut feeling is that this is just another manifestation of an anti-gun freakout by parents and school administrators, one that has First Amendment implications. Can a teacher be disciplined and abused like this for the contents of his creative writings on his own time, published under a nom de plume? How can this be justified? And yet there was “Wisconsin Sickness”….

The closest I can come to a justification for the school’s reaction is this controversial Ethics Alarms post, from 2012. A woman who had been an active and popular Girl Scout troop leader was kicked out of the organization because her husband ran a disturbingwebsite called “Wisconsin Sickness,” featuring stories and images of various perverse crimes, many involving young women. I concluded that the decision was ethically justified:

“If I have a daughter in the Girl Scouts, I am not going to be comfortable with her having a troop leader whose nearest and dearest spends his time and passion writing and thinking about serial killers, cannibals, mayhem, and the darkest reaches of the human soul. Maybe I watch too much “Criminal Minds”—okay, I DO watch too much “Criminal Minds”, but the fact remains that if something horrible happened, and it turned out that the scout leader was part of sick cult that entrapped young girls to be menu items for her husband’s mutant friends, I would never forgive myself. This is the Girl Scouts, and it is reasonable to want young girls as far away from the shadow of Ed Gein as possible. I’d want another troop leader for my daughter. She’s not a bus driver or a plumber, she’s a leader, a role model and a mentor, and the man she lives with celebrates mayhem.

This is an ethical conflict, where two ethical principles are in opposition. If one wins, the other loses. Sheis a volunteer, not an employee, and that tips the scales for me. Responsibility and prudence, mine, trumps fairness to her.”

It was the closest of ethics calls then, and this situation with the novelist teacher makes it seem even closer, and perhaps mistaken. I have no hesitation saying that everything done by the school system beyond the suspension is ridiculously excessive, unfair and abusive. But are there no reasonable limits to what kind of published writings a teacher can engage in without causing legitimate alarm among his students’ parents? Novels about serial killers? Novels about child abuse? Novels about sexual perversions? Novels extolling terrorism?

Novels about school shootings?

UPDATE (10:42 PM, 9/2/14)

As many suspected, there is something, we’re not sure what, disturbing about Mr. McLaw other than his novels and his multiple names. Over at Popehat, Ken White reveals some more facts in this strange tale, and also criticizes the sloppy journalism that characterized this story as a school punishing a teacher for a work of science fiction, concluding,”Just as it’s entirely plausible that the government might do it, it’s entirely plausible that journalists might report it without criticism, analysis, or apparent consciousness of how outrageous it would be. “

One of the nice things about this being an ethics analysis and commentary blog rather than a news or politics site is that as far as the issue raised in the original post is concerned, I don’t have to worry about whether the story is strictly accurate or not. I’m still interested in whether a teacher’s writings out of class ever disqualify him (or her) to teach young minds. The question of whether such writings ever justify the significant measures taken by the school and the police is, comparatively, too easy.


Pointer: Fred

Sources: WBOC, Reason

Graphic: gadfly

14 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Strange Case Of The 2902 School Shooting Victim

  1. Sadly, this is why pen names are necessary. Imagining bad things is part of telling dramatic and even important stories. Not considering these things,putting our fingers in our ears and going ‘la-la-la,’ will not let us find solutions or consider the aftermaths. If an author wrote a story inspired by events, but removed in both time it lets everyone examine the issue with a little bit less emotion and hysteria. In future stories he could suppose how society will react if this goes on, even the hysteria of this kind of overreaction. Just because an author writes about terrible things doesn’t mean they want to do them, anymore than any other artist.

    This is a clear case of art vs mass hysteria against any guns. Will they remove all movies, tv, books,and games that have guns, just like newer WW2 movies edited smoking out? I hate that machine guns,unsuitable for self defense or hunting, are out there for tragedies. But I hate this thought police even more.

    His biggest mistake was in revealing his pen name. If he had any doubt at all about how his book would be received, he should have kept that a closely guarded secret. His sales would be lower if he can’t help publicize his book, but there are too many idiots, especially in education, who can’t separate fiction or teaching opportunities on the issue. He may be able to recover his career, but he will probably have to deal with the professional and personal stresses if he tries for vindication. I admit I hope to publish fiction and I want that separate from my personal life. Using a pen name is not duplicity or fraud, it’s pragmatism, just for this kind of problem. Some may eventually come out, like for Louisa May Alcott, Asimov,or Jayne Ann Krentz, but writing a thriller does not make a terrorist, despite any research. I’m sure whatever criteria profilers have for threats, it is highly unlikely a middle school teacher fits the maladjusted underachiever loner with communication/social problems, as a teacher he must be a really bad match or he would have been disciplined and let go long before a book would come out.

    So no, there should be no novelist teacher principal. But a pen name should have prevented the question as his artistic efforts would not be associated with his day job.

  2. There is information missing here – not least of which is the tone and tenor of the books.

    Fiction is fiction – whether it be in the form of a novel, a play, a film or a song lyric. Consider how many murder ballads are may be found in the country music genre; the songwriters had no hands-on experience with murder, and likely no actual impulse to do so, but were still capable of writing about it.

    What’s popularly called “Science Fiction” but more accurately called “Speculative Fiction” involves setting the story in the future, is often the result of the writer imagining a progression of events based upon what he/she sees in the here and now (Ayn Rand’s and many of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels reflect such a projection). That the views can be dystopian and/or violent does not indict the writer for actually harboring any desire to see that world. In fact, at least in Rand’s case, her novels were intended to serve as a warning – and that that may well be the case here.

    It would appear from the original article that the teacher in question was at minimum basing his novel in a world that he understood, and projecting it forward in that classic approach to creating a novel.

    If other aspects of McLaw’s background – observations by peers and superiors in academic and job performance, to name two – suggest potentially violent ideation, then perhaps the move was justified. If not, this strikes me as a gross over-reaction, and is thus unethical.

  3. You’ve left out a couple of key pieces of information:

    1. What the news media refers to as “aliases” consist of a) a nom de plume and b) a legal name change from Beale to McLaw. In addition, McLaw’s legal name appears on the copyright page of his novels, so there is no duplicity here at all. Using a pseudonym, for a writer, is not the same as using an alias (as you point out); and changing one’s name legally should throw all suspicion of duplicity out the window. I have changed my name legally, both because I’ve been married twice and for personal reasons. Those are not aliases, and no one would use the word unless they were seeking to otherwise discredit me. An “alias” suggests wanting to hide; when you change your name legally, it’s public record. In fact, you have to publish the request for a period of weeks, just to guard against fraud and identity theft.

    2. McLaw was not just taken in for an emergency psych eval, not just suspended, not just banned from school property, and not just the subject of a search (I’d LOVE to see the probably cause on THAT – “Your honor, he was thinking thoughts about real events and building novels around them…”) but he has also been moved to an undisclosed location. No one knows where he is; all the police will say is that he is unable to travel. Has he been arrested? Incarcerated? Locked up in a mental hospital? No one knows. And for what? For thinking and writing?

    From what I understand, the novels he wrote are about exploring the aftermath of a school shooting. They’re not glorifying the shooting. To the contrary: they’re exploring them as horrific events. This is no different from any other novel or film about tragedies involving children. If you work in a school with children, and you care about your students, and you fear that harm might come to them, then it makes sense that you might structure a novel around your concerns. It is not the same as running a website devoted to real-life blood and gore; it’s exploring, as a writer, an issue that is more than likely on your mind on a fairly regular basis. I see no problem with that; in fact, the idea that a person who writes about school violence shouldn’t be teaching children is anathema to me. Writing about violence and doing violence are not the same thing, and one does not lead to the other in most cases. If it did, many of the great novelists would be convicted felons.

  4. School systems have taken to locking down buildings tighter, drilling, and preparing for the event of a school shooter, which will of course encourage students and teachers to consider such scenarios. This one has now taken the step of punishing a teacher for responding to those lessons by imagining such a situation and including it in a book he was writing. It might depend on the context of the shootings in the book, but my first instinct is that you shouldn’t punish someone for writing about something that you are encouraging him to think about.

    Perhaps this particular school board did not jump on the extra security bandwagon. However, sending someone for a mental evaluations because of a published book they wrote is not the sign of a sane group of people, so I really doubt it.

    It occurs to me that any justification sending him for an evaluation would also apply to school board members who demonstrate school shooting paranoia, or think that a locking the glass doors to a building will have any deterrent effect on future shooters.

  5. I can’t even type a coherent comment because I am so mad reading this.

    This school teacher needs a good lawyer and pronto. He needs to start suing everyone involved.

  6. The response seems excessive, as there were no true efforts to hide the publishing of the books. The first book was published a year before his employment, the second during his first year of employment, which presumably began in the Fall of 2013. Further, “Dr. V” outed himself in October 2012, so this wasn’t even unknowable to his employer, who could have discovered his authorship by a simple web search. (“)

    Emergency mental evaluation would seem very excessive if there were no other signs of instability. However, the linked article is vague, so it is possible that the evaluation was triggered by the acute stress of the sudden national attention, rather than the contents of the book. If so, then the district’s response boils down to barring him from premises while suspended*.

    The police raiding his house is still problematic (and somewhat separate from the district/county’s response). On the one hand, they want to investigate the student’s safety, and turning up nothing help’s clear the teacher. What else would the investigation contain? On the other, justice requires probable cause for search or seizure, and mere authorship of a book, published at this point under his own name, very probably does not suggest violent tendencies. Should Susan Collin’s home be raided?

    Publishing under the name “Dr. Voltaer” is slightly problematic, as it might suggest the author, who is a teacher, possesses a D. Ed. or other advanced degree. However, the obvious association with the historic French author “Voltaire” should belay this as an obvious pseudonym.

    The only fault I can see is not disclosing his parallel career as an author. However, given the district and police response, this does not seem wholly unreasonable. Knowing the teacher is a published author should be seen as a boon, but their reaction with irrational horror at the contents of the book makes me wonder how they will attract or retain any quality educators in the future.

    * (The need to search the school by police is logically necessitated by the contrived need to search the home)

    • “On the other, justice requires probable cause for search or seizure, and mere authorship of a book, published at this point under his own name, very probably does not suggest violent tendencies.”

      More than just justice, buddy. The Constitution, and, hence, the laws of the country require it. What the police, and the school board have done is EXCEPTIONALLY illegal, and the police holding him incognito? Don’t EVEN want to go there.

      • Well yeah. I assumed that Constitutional Due Process was sufficiently implied…

        As for the “undisclosed location”, the article was not clear as to whether that was the police’s doing, or a voluntarily measure taken in response to the predictable death threats. The reporting is rather sloppy, actually, making this controversial case even more difficult to follow.

  7. Anybody know any teachers? Anybody think that any time any kind of school threat is in the news that they can STOP their brains from belaboring what they would do any time any threat happened to them? Heck, this sounds like a SANE response to insanity (e.g. attacks, not regular school days) in schools. If the book (which I haven’t read) is as mentioned above, about the *reaction* to a horrific school shooting, it sounds like he processed the recent ones and wrote a novel. I think the school board should have read it, discussed it, and potentially held an inservice around it so that all the teachers could discuss and process their feelings and reactions. Literature (and other art) helps us humans deal with our own responses to good and bad stimuli. Yeesh. First Amendment trampling that sounds like it’s actually dangerous for the guy.

  8. There has to be more involved here, things are getting crazy but this goes well beyond anything logical. If it turns out he was a stable, rational and productive teacher that just had his employer report him to the police as a CYA then I hope he pulls a seven figure settlement and destroys some careers.

    What I am hopeful for (not that I wish him ill) is that this turns out to be a reasonable response to a mentality unstable individual who was identified and addressed before something bad happened. The reporting says nothing hazardous was found at the school or his home but that is not the same as the saying teacher was safe to be around others.

    Maybe the reason so little is known at this point is because there is a psychiatric issue being dealt with in a reasonable, confidential and deliberate manner. If it turns out this is a psychiatric issue what is the ethical way in which this should be reported? If the school and police took steps to insure the safety of the children by removing him but doctors may be able to treat or clear him shouldn’t officials keep their mouths shut and let the professionals do their jobs? If they make a statement about what is personally going on with him they could damage him, but now that the press has it a result in loss of public trust or credibility could occur. I personally think with him no longer in the position to pose a threat that his rights should trump any other concern but the lack of information can result in other harm.

    Ethically what is the right approach for officials? Journalist? On one hand you have the privacy of a possible non-criminal but potentially dangerous individual and on the other you have public school with a potential safety issue.

    I think the individuals privacy should win out.

  9. If we lock up teachers every time one of them weighs the utilitarian option of no longer having a class to worry about but being on the run from the law vs being a legal teacher in a room full of juvenile delinquents then we’d have no teachers…

  10. What if a surgeon, in his/her spare time, wrote thriller stories or horror stories of surgeons doing horrible things to their patients while under the knife?

    What if a police officer wrote stories about vigilante cops taking justice into their own hands?

    What if a general wrote stories about American military exploits that involved genocide, horrible biological warfare, wholesale destruction of civilizations as standard policy?


    The abstracted question is this:

    Should we worry about Professional X from Profession Y who creates stories about characters who violate all the professional standards of Profession Y?

    I’d say the answer is No*

    Unless those stories developed a noticeable tone in which the “bad” character is seemingly rewarded or made out to be “meh, he’s ok” in the end. Much like the “Vampire Reenacting Politician”…every so often is ok, but after awhile, are we seeing into your soul?

    In this case however, if the commenter above is accurate that the story is really focused on the aftermath and the coping of a school shooting, then I’d say their treatment of this guy in the post is colossally wrong.

  11. Ha! Looks like this didn’t have anything to do with books he wrote. This is according to the state attorney. I can’t post a link as my phone is not cooperating and Ethics Alarms is blocked on the network I have access to right now. Several news sites have it as well as Volokh.

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