Students punished for 'dark' writing

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but creativity is quickly becoming the Achilles’ heel for high school student authors, who face increased scrutiny over creative works done in and out of school.

Creative writing assignments and personal journals have become an object of concern for many administrators who fear that works which are “dark” or contain violent images are actually threats by students.

At a Minnesota high school, a 17-year-old was arrested Oct. 14 after students found his notebook containing violent and gloomy poetry and similar works on a school computer.

Because police officers said the students at Humboldt High School felt threatened by the writings, the incident was taken very seriously, said St. Paul Police Officer Paul Schnell. He said the works contained references to weapons, seeing others dead, and to the fact that the author felt ostracized and angered by others at school.

“The question becomes one of was there adequate probable cause to make an arrest,” Schnell said. “On the basis of what we saw, yes.”

The student, who was not named in police reports pleaded guilty in juvenile court to charges of disorderly conduct and was sentenced on Nov. 15. He also has been placed in another area high school.

“We are not unaware of the implications from the standpoint of freedom of speech,” Schnell said. “If we didn’t take action, citing free speech, and something did happen, would the question be ‘Why didn’t police at least investigate?’”

Police often find themselves “right where the rub occurs” between defending and infringing upon free speech, he said, but officers would rather be safe instead of sorry.

Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Chuck Samuelson said the school’s response was an overreaction, and while the student’s First Amendment rights may have been violated, these cases are difficult to win.

“Judges give great deference to school officials who claim that the free speech of the student impinged on the school process,” he said.

A middle school student in New York was suspended when he took a class assignment too far, officials said. In addition to keeping a journal, a creative writing assignment for his English class, Dylan Finkle began writing a short story modeled after horror films.

The story featured fictional characters named after fellow students at Thompson Middle School. Finkle claims he got permission from students to use their names, but another teacher was unsettled by the graphic murders and sexual situations depicted in the story.

In one scene, the main character, also named Dylan, decapitates his girlfriend upon finding her having sex with another boy. The story ends with Dylan’s death and the question, “Will this be the end of the masked killer? All we know is that true Evil never dies…”

Finkle’s appeal to the commissioner of education was denied. He has since filed a civil suit seeking almost $2 million in damages for violations of his First, Fifth and 14th Amendment rights.

“It’s an estimate of damages in regards to mental anguish,” Finkle’s attorney Chris Murray said about the damages. “Ultimately, it comes down to a jury to decide the price tag for him being socially ostracized and [having] his life disrupted.”

Murray said the suspension and the school’s handling of the event, including its refusal to transfer the boy to another area school, has made the 11-year-old a “social pariah.”

School officials could not be reached for comment.

A Georgiahigh school sophomore, Rachel Boims, was given a one-year expulsion after a teacher confiscated and read parts of the girl’s private journal about a student who dreams of killing a teacher.

Though the suspension was overturned in late 2003, a month after it was issued, Boims withdrew from Roswell High School because of the negative effects of the situation. She returned later in the semester and is in the initial stages of filing suit against the school, according to her father.

Robert O’Neil, executive director for the Thomas Jefferson Center for Protection of Free Expression, said the most common First Amendment rights violations he sees involve high school students.

The proliferation can be attributed in part to the transition students make from having behavior controlled exclusively by parents to becoming somewhat autonomous, he said.

“These types of things go in cycles from Tinker [v. Des Moines] where things are in ascendancy to Hazelwood [v. Kuhlmeier] where rights dwindle,” O’Neil said, citing two U.S. Supreme Court cases that defined the First Amendment rights of students and the student press.

“Secondly, administrators tend to assume – almost like a paramilitary organization – that their ability to maintain discipline and order depends substantially on taking a hard line when an issue first arises,” he said. “When the first person does something novel or challenging, he is likely to be caught in the crossfire.”

The convergence of these elements makes censorship almost inevitable – but not acceptable – O’Neil said.