Student suspended for writing slasher story for class

Case illustrates challenge of perceived threats

January 20, 2004|By Nedra Rhone | Nedra Rhone,NEWSDAY

Dylan Finkle likes scary movies. The Halloween series is his favorite.

But when the aspiring writer modeled a story after the films for his English class, the 11-year-old from Syosset, N.Y., was suspended from Harry B. Thompson Middle School in October for more than six weeks.

His parents, who gave the Long Island sixth-grader permission to write the story using his name in place of celluloid slasher Michael Myers and his friends' names as supporting characters, were baffled.

"It's such an overreaction," said Andrew Finkle, Dylan's father. "We were aware of the story ... and we had no problems with it."

District officials said they could not comment specifically on Dylan's case. But spokeswoman Randi Sachs said, "The reason something like this happens is because our first concern is for the health and safety of all of our children. If something is seen that is a possible threat ... we cannot ignore it."

Last month, E. Christopher Murray, the Finkles' attorney provided by the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed a $500,000 notice of claim that the Finkles intend to sue the Syosset school district. The legal papers allege that district officials gave Dylan psychological tests without permission and deliberately mischaracterized to other parents his fictional story as a threat.

The larger issue, Murray said, is that the school violated Dylan's First Amendment right to free speech and his right to due process. Pending the outcome of a petition filed with New York State Commissioner of Education Richard Mills, Murray said, the Finkles also plan to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

Cases similar to Dylan's have sprung up nationwide, said educators and legal experts, as schools' rights to protect students and staff from harm in a post-Columbine era clash with students' rights to free speech.

"We have ... had a near epidemic of these types of cases where there appears to be ... parents and often the community reacting to what they believe is a consequence way out of line with the infraction," said Russell Skiba, associate professor of education at Indiana University, who has studied school disciplinary policies.

In October 2000, Ashley Smith, an 11-year-old at Garrett Middle School in Austell, Ga., was suspended because she took her Tweety Bird wallet with a small 10-inch chain to class. School officials said the chain could be a weapon and violated their zero-tolerance policy. The 10-day suspension was lifted, but Ashley transferred to a private school and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the school board on behalf of her parents.

In New York, the Schools Against Violence in Education Act, signed into law by Gov. George E. Pataki in July 2000, gave administrators broader leeway in discipline than in the past. One amendment allows principals to suspend an insubordinate, disruptive, disorderly or violent student for up to five school days. Before the legislation, a principal could only suspend a student when authorized by the school board.

The law, said Barbara Bernstein, executive director of the Nassau County chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, has had an impact on students in many Long Island districts. In September 2001, a freshman at Baldwin High School was suspended for an entire school year when she posted an overheard bomb threat to a Web site instead of reporting it to school officials. The suspension was reduced to one term, Bernstein said, but the student transferred to a private school. School officials declined to comment.

The student's record was ultimately cleared, Bernstein said, and the NYCLU would like to see the same happen for Dylan.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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