When the two plainclothes Loudoun County sheriff's investigators showed up on her Leesburg doorstep, Pamela Albaugh got nervous. But when they told her why they were there, she got angry: A complaint had been filed alleging that her 11-year old son had made "anti-American and violent" statements in school.
She was aware of an incident at Belmont Ridge Middle School in which her son, Yishai Asido, was assigned to write a letter to U.S. Marines and responded, according to his teacher, by saying, "I wish all Americans were dead and that American soldiers should die." Yishai and Albaugh deny that the boy wished his countrymen dead.
Albaugh, a U.S. citizen, and her husband, an Israeli citizen who manages a Leesburg moving company, say the investigators' visit and the school's response were a paranoid overreaction in a charged post-9/11 environment. But law enforcement officials say the terrorist attacks and the Columbine school shootings require them to consider whether children who make threats might post a danger to their classmates. The case illustrates the balancing act that schools and law enforcement must find between the free speech of minors and community safety.
Albaugh described her son as a rambunctious student who has long opposed armies of any kind. He refused the Veterans Day assignment and told his teacher that the Marines "might as well die, as much as I care." Whatever was said, the words had been the source of anguished conferences, phone calls and, ultimately, a day of in-school suspension.
Albaugh thought the whole thing was resolved in school until Investigators Robert LeBlanc and Kelly Poland showed up last week. What followed, she said, was two hours of polite but intense and personal questioning.
They asked how she felt about 9/11 and the military. They asked whether she knows any foreigners who have trouble with American policy. They mentioned a German friend who had been staying with the family and asked whether the friend sympathized with the Taliban. They also inquired whether she might be teaching her children "anti-American values," she said.
Toward the end of the conversation, Albaugh's husband, Alon Asido, arrived home. Asido said the pair then spent another hour talking to him, mostly about his life in Israel and his more than four years in an elite combat unit there.
Before the investigators left, one deputy said their "concerns had been put to rest," Albaugh said.
"It was intimidating," she said. "I told them it's like a George Orwell novel, that it felt like they were the thought police. If someone would have asked me five years ago if this was something my government would do, I would have said never."
Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson confirmed that investigators visited the house. "Whenever there is a complaint that a child in a school is using language that is threatening or with violent overtones, we have an obligation to look into it," he said. "We can't ignore something like that and have something tragic happen down the road that we could have prevented."
Simpson declined to comment on details of the complaint or the kinds of questions investigators asked. "If you're looking at what [the school] said he said, I have to think you'd see where we came up with those questions," he said.
A schools spokesman declined to comment, other than to release, at Albaugh's request, a one-page letter from Yishai's file that explained his suspension.
His parents said the boy's words were those of a confused adolescent, whose views of the world are still being formed. They believe that authorities were called partly because he has a foreign-sounding name and accented English from years of living abroad. The family lived in India, Europe and Israel before moving to the United States in 2000. The couple have four children, with both U.S. and Israeli citizenship, enrolled in Loudoun schools.
Albaugh said that Yishai is not violent and that the school could have used the classroom incident as a "teachable moment," helping him learn to say what he was feeling in a less offensive manner.
Instead, Yishai said he has learned that it is not worth challenging authority. "At the end of the day, you lose," he said, adding: "All of these freedoms and things they're supposed to uphold, they bash them."
The Columbine shootings, in which a teacher and 12 students were killed by two other students in Colorado in 1999, has changed the way schools view violent words uttered by their students, said Ronald D. Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. In this case, he noted, no one was arrested, no charges were filed and the case was closed.
"Sometimes the questions might be somewhat uncomfortable. But the final outcome was that [the investigators] got there and realized there was no 'there' there," he said. "We should give credit where credit is due."
Georgetown law professor David Cole said Yishai's statement in class is protected by the Constitution.
"There's no indication from the student making an anti-American statement that violence to the school would follow," he said. "The FBI and government officials should be investigating real terrorists, not children who criticize the United States."