Student suspended for creative writing assignment sues N.Y. school district

NEW YORK — When his fictional horror story featuring characters named after fellow students landed a middle school student in hot water more than a year ago, administrators punished the boy with a 30-day suspension.

Now, 11-year-old Dylan Finkle is seeking his own retribution — almost $2 million in damages — from the Syosset Central School District for the suspension he and his parents say never should have happened.

Finkle was a sixth-grader at Thompson Middle School when he read parts of his journal to his English class in October 2003. The journal was a creative writing assignment, and his short story, inspired by the Halloween horror movies, contained graphic descriptions of characters committing acts of violence, which a teacher found threatening.

Principal James Kassebaum initially suspended Finkle for five days and scheduled psychological testing as well as a superintendent’s hearing, after which Finkle was suspended for an additional 30 days, the suit claims.

An appeal against the suspension to the school board was denied, and a further appeal to the Commissioner of Education was dismissed as moot on Sept. 30 because the suspension had already been served.

Finkle’s attorney Chris Murray said he found the commissioner’s ruling “ridiculous.”

“The reasons it’s moot is that [the commissioner] took a year to decide,” he said. “The reason it’s moot is [because of] the commissioner’s own actions.”

Now, Finkle is suing in district court for violations of his First, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights. The suit seeks punitive damages and compensation for defamation and emotional distress — a total of $1.65 million plus attorneys’ fees.

“Dylan has been ostracized at school, held up to public ridicule, lost valuable education time, and suffered severe emotional distress,” the suit claims.

Calls to the school district seeking comment were not returned.

Jonathon Burman, a state education department spokesman, said he could not comment on specifics of the commissioner’s ruling but added that timelines for rulings vary by case.

Aside from claims of constitutional rights violations, Murray said the school also violated New York’s public health code, which states that schools cannot provide medical testing or services without parental permission.

Finkle claims school administrators administered a psychological test. A later discussion between Finkle and a private psychologist confirmed that inappropriate questions had been asked, Murray said. The psychologist was able to determine what kind of test Finkle was given by the boy’s descriptions of questions he said school administrators asked him.

In addition to the suspension, Murray said, the school has not taken enough steps to ease the situation. Finkle’s request to be transferred to another local school was denied, Murray said.

“In a lot of ways, [Finkle] has become a social pariah,” he said.