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A Real Threat or Heated Debate Gone Awry?

The lanky 16-year-old with a crop of jet-black hair and a typical teenager's slouch speaks in accentless English, even though he arrived here from China only six years ago. It was his easy fluency in his adopted tongue, and a densely philosophical tirade taken by some to be a bomb threat, which transformed the young man from a well-liked honors student at Curtis High School into a defendant in criminal court charged under an anti-terrorism act.

The teenager has been charged with "making a terrorist threat with the intent to intimidate or coerce a civilian population" under a powerful state law crafted "in the emotional climate" six days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, said Li's attorney Patrick Parrotta.

"He's an extraordinarily bright student, and he also seems well socialized," said Pete Sorrentino, a science administrator at the school who recently visited Li's AP Chemistry lab to observe students working in groups. According to Li's attorney, he has received national recognition for overall academic excellence and was granted a U.S. National Mathematics Award and studied philosophy at the college level. Until the incident which his attorney said "can't be good for his prospects," Li was courted for college scholarships.

Despite his insecurity, intensity and youthful indifference, Li formed meaningful relationships with his peers based on mutual respect and shared interest in things cerebral, Sicilian said. "He was recognized by basically the entire student body as being a real smart guy who talked too much."

However, even the most idle chatter can have disproportionate consequences, said Marla R. Brassard, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia Teachers College. "It all comes down to levels of judgment," she said. "In my experience and research, principals always have a policy of having their ear to the ground and do their own threat assessments. Only in a tiny percentage of cases they'll call in outside help."

This article, written by Deborah Young, appeared in the November 13th, 2005 publication of the Staten Island Advance.

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