School suspends teen for rap lyric
Posted by mark on November 7, 2003 at 1:23 PM
Brookfield student says song not meant as threat
By REID J. EPSTEIN
Last Updated: Nov. 6, 2003
Brookfield - A 15-year-old Brookfield Central High School student's homemade rhymes earned him a five-day suspension and could get the honor student expelled because of a lyric deemed threatening toward the principal - perhaps the first such case in Wisconsin.
Over the course of three months, Sashwat Singh wrote and recorded a 32-minute, 14-track rap compact disc featuring rants that made reference to illegal drug use and explicit sexual acts. He denigrates classmates, his mother and his high school. One track is a rap he used when campaigning to be class treasurer.
School administrators called the disc, which includes a song about the principal, Mark Cerutti, and conditions at the school, "gross disobedience or misconduct," an offense on par with making a bomb threat, bringing guns to school and arson.
But Singh's father, Dilip Singh, said he couldn't understand why his son was given the school's harshest penalty.
The other offenses "have to do with drugs and guns," Dilip Singh said. "When you look at what he did and compare one to the other, it doesn't make sense."
Sashwat Singh insisted the lyrics weren't meant as a threat, but "just random words that rhymed. I didn't think I had done anything wrong."
The vulgar lyrics suggest that if Cerutti doesn't get out of Brookfield, Singh will "beat your ass down." Singh, a Brookfield Central junior, also uses a slew of sexually explicit slurs to describe Cerutti.
"I don't approve of that kind of language," Dilip Singh said.
Cerutti said that he first became aware of Sashwat Singh's CD on Oct. 29, and that he was suspended later that day.
"Content is one part of the rationale for the action that's being taken," Cerutti said.
Matt Gibson, the Elmbrook School District superintendent, said he was "fact-finding to determine whether or not to move it toward expulsion." Gibson, who called the decision to issue Singh a five-day suspension "appropriate," said a ruling on further sanctions will come before Tuesday, when Singh is due back in school.
Case may be a first
Singh's suspension may mark the first time a high school student in Wisconsin has been removed from school for a song he'd written, said Ken Cole, the executive director of the Madison-based Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
Cole said a threat couched in music made outside school "isn't a matter of all in good sport or fun. If some incident occurs a month from now, someone will say, 'You knew back then.' We have to treat every incident very seriously."
A member of the school's band and choir who is enrolled in Advanced Placement and honors courses, Singh recorded and made the album with equipment on his home computer. Then, a month ago, he sold two copies to classmates and gave away three others. One of the copies landed in Cerutti's hands, and Oct. 29, the principal suspended Singh for five days. School has been dismissed on three days during that time, making Tuesday the first day Singh can return to school.
Dan Macallair, the executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, said the suspension is indicative of a national trend toward zero tolerance in schools.
"We're punishing kids for things that we adults never would have been punished for when we were that age," he said. "If we try to criminalize every comment that adolescents made, all our kids would be locked up."
Neither Macallair nor Cole was familiar with any other case of a student being disciplined for a song recorded outside school.
If Gibson moves to expel Singh, the boy would be suspended for up to 10 more days, and an expulsion hearing would be held then.
'Kind of like love songs'
Andrew Franklin, Singh's Milwaukee-based attorney, said the boy was simply "expressing himself" and the school has no right to discipline him, even if some people object to portions of the CD on moral grounds.
"They're kind of like love songs and fantasies," he said of the disc's content. "It's a long list of outrageous things that he throws out there. I think it's an attempt to make him look like a deviant or a threat."
Franklin said Singh's lyrics do not constitute a threat to Cerutti, with whom Singh had never spoken.
"Nothing about this is inherently more threatening than an Eminem CD," he said, referring to the rapper who has been criticized for defaming women and gays in his lyrics. "He was expressing a viewpoint about how he thought the school was operating as a police state."
Cerutti referred questions about the disc's lyrics to Gibson, who said Thursday that he had not yet listened to it.
After Singh's suspension, Brookfield police followed him home and confiscated his home computer. Police returned the computer Nov. 4.
Dilip Singh said he has yet to listen to the entire disc but did read the text of the lyrics.
Sashwat Singh said his parents "weren't as mad as I thought they would be."
In any case, Singh said he wasn't a fan of his principal, who came to Brookfield Central at the start of this school year after working in the Madison schools and as an education consultant.