Christopher Bullock, a 16-year-old junior at Tallwood High School in Virginia Beach, thought he had given a clever if chilling twist to the essay he wrote in March for the state writing test. In the manner of his literary idol, Stephen King, Bullock imagined a student announcing a special gift for his school -- a nuclear bomb strapped to his chest that he detonates at the end of his speech.
The 437-word piece was somewhat repetitive but had vivid passages and few grammatical or spelling errors. For someone who was barely passing English -- his teachers said his problem was attitude, not ability -- the essay was good, and Bullock was proud of it.
No one would see it, he had heard, but a few anonymous graders in Texas. Then two weeks ago, long before his grade was scheduled to arrive, he got a reaction from an unexpected source. His principal told him that he was being immediately suspended for making a bomb threat and that he might be expelled. Police also filed criminal charges.
"It is ludicrous," his attorney, Moody E. "Sonny" Stallings Jr., said yesterday.
On Thursday, a school disciplinary panel said that Bullock could finish his remaining courses at home or another school and return to Tallwood on probation next year if he has weekly psychological counseling until officials are convinced he is not a threat. Stallings said he will ask the full School Board to remove the punishment and will go to court if it doesn't.
Virginia Beach schools spokeswoman Kathy O. Phipps said there was no evidence that Bullock had any weapon or planned to show the essay to anyone other than the readers for Harcourt Brace Educational Measurement, the San Antonio-based company that designs and grades Virginia's new Standards of Learning (SOL) tests.
But, she said, Bullock already had two disciplinary marks against him this school year -- leaving a field trip without permission and inciting a "potential" fight -- and had shown little effort in class recently.
"In the context of the child's past behavior and the disciplinary record," Phipps said, principal Bernard E. Morgan III "felt that this action was necessary."
Bullock wrote the essay several weeks before the April 20 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that has caused a rise in both school bomb threats and strong reactions by school administrators to perceived threats. The Virginia Beach district has received more than 40 threats since April 20.
Ann Beeson, an attorney with the national staff of the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is an important legal difference between an actual threat and a threat contained in a fantasy. She said courts have already ruled that fantasy threats are protected as free speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution. In the Bullock case, she said she thought that it was appropriate for school officials to talk to the student about the essay but that punishment should be reserved for student speech that "disrupts the educational environment."
Beverly Bullock, the student's mother and a teacher, signed a release Thursday allowing the school district to distribute a copy of the essay and related material in the case.
At the end of his essay, Bullock's narrator says: "I have chosen this gift because school has given me nothing but stress, heartache, and pain. I must say thank you for the knowledge and education you have given me. . . . I would really like to thank my chemistry teacher for helping me with it. . . . I hope you all enjoy the light show for what little time you have left."
A May 4 letter from the testing company to the school district said test readers were told to report any "personal situation that might warrant attention." It said readers "are in no position to determine whether the situations described are real, imagined or exaggerated," but that "to ignore these responses altogether would be irresponsible."
Stallings said he has been told that criminal charges will be dropped. Phipps said any disciplinary action against students is sealed and does not appear on the records sent with college applications.
CAPTION: Christopher Bullock, 16, was suspended from school in Virginia Beach because of an essay he wrote for a state test. In the essay, a student sets off a nuclear bomb at school.