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Court upholds ruling on high schooler's essay

A federal lawsuit filed by a former Cook County High School student claiming his constitutional rights were violated when he wrote an essay about killing a teacher has been struck down again.

On Friday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lawsuit's dismissal last year by a federal judge.

The three-judge panel found that David Riehm's essay was a "true threat" and not protected by the First Amendment as Riehm and his mother, Colleen Riehm of Grand Portage, had claimed. The panel found no fault in the way the school district and county officials responded.

"It's good news," said Ann Mershon, the teacher who reported Riehm's disturbing essay to school officials. "It's unfortunate that all the time and money has been spent on this that could have been served otherwise."

The Riehms couldn't be located Friday for comment. Jon Iverson, the Bloomington, Minn., attorney representing Cook County and two social workers, was not reachable for comment, his office said.

The essay was the last of three essays Riehm, then 17, had written for Mershon's creative writing class in January 2005 which Mershon found offensive or threatening.

The appellate court concurred, finding the essays disturbingly violent. The third, titled "Bowling for Cuntchenson," is "gruesome," the panel found, with its vivid description of an attack on a teacher. The essay has a student shooting his teacher in a fit of rage directed by God, then committing suicide.

"I was threatened and frightened, and I went to my principal, which is what I should do," Mershon said Friday. "Everybody did everything that they should do."

As a result, Riehm was suspended from the Grand Marais school, and authorities were notified. With a court order, a social worker and deputy sheriff took Riehm into protective custody. He was held for three nights in mental health units in Duluth where he was evaluated. He was found to have an "adjustment disorder" but was not mentally ill or dangerous. He was released after a court hearing.

The lawsuit filed in 2006 sought damages against Cook County, Independent School District No. 166 and local law enforcement. It noted $5,863 in David Riehm's medical bills that the county didn't pay and Colleen Riehm refused to pay. By the time the appeal was filed last November, the Riehms had dismissed their claims against Mershon, the school district and law enforcement.

"It was my last year of teaching in Cook County, and it was incredibly painful," recalled Mershon, who had planned to retire at the end of the 2004-05 school year.

Since the incident, school and county officials in Minnesota are apt to handle such incidents differently; they are more likely to prosecute such behavior rather than recommend psychological evaluations, Mershon said.

"They asked me if I wanted to press charges and I said no, because I care about David," Mershon said. "I was concerned about him. And I still do. I felt he had some problems."