ACLU Challenges Suspension of Student in Latest Example of "Post-Columbine Hysteria"

November 21, 2000 12:00 am

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JOHNSTON, RI–In response to the latest example of lingering post-Columbine hysteria, the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging a local school’s indefinite suspension, without notice or a hearing, of an 11th-grade honors student based solely on the content of an extra-credit journal writing assignment for his English Honors class.

Johnston High School officials have “totally failed to distinguish between a student who is a danger and a student who is different, extremely bright and imaginative,” said ACLU volunteer attorney John W. Dineen.

“It is truly unfortunate that we have come to the point where creative students become suspects, teachers become undercover agents, and written words become the new controlled substance,” he added. “I wonder if Dostoevski, Camus, H.P. Lovecraft or Edgar Allen Poe kept journals when they were 17.”

Matthew Parent, 17-years old, has been excluded from his school since October 27 of this year. Although he has never exhibited any signs of violent behavior and has no criminal or juvenile record, school officials are barring him from returning until he has a psychological evaluation.

For his English class, Matthew was instructed to use a journal to engage in “free write” or stream-of-consciousness exercises, which are designed to encourage students to write creatively. On October 24, he gave his teacher nine handwritten pages of “free write.” The teacher, without discussing it with Matthew, showed the composition to a guidance counselor, who in turn gave it to the school psychologist.

Without ever speaking to Matthew, the psychologist and a school social worker reviewed the material and advised the principal that there were “suicidal, homicidal, mood concerns, non-bizarre delusions of grandeur and narcissistic themes included in the exposition.” The composition, they further wrote, exhibited “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of his culture,” and “significant distress and impairment in the academic setting.”

Relying completely on the memo, and ignoring the fact that Matthew was receiving “A” grades in all his academic studies, which include three Honors classes and a college-level course, the principal advised Matthew’s mother that he would not be allowed to return to school without a psychological evaluation.

The ACLU lawsuit notes that at no time did the school provide Matthew or his mother with any written charges or a hearing. Nor did they point to any conduct in justifying the exclusion.

In its complaint, the ACLU alleges that the school’s actions violated Matthew’s First and Fifth Amendment rights. Among other remedies, the complaint seeks a court order allowing Matthew to return to school, deletion of this incident from his school record, and compensatory and punitive damages for the “egregious violation of his rights.”

Thus far, school officials have not attempted further contact with Matthew or his mother; nor have they arranged any form of home tutoring.

Matthew Parent is not alone in feeling the lingering effects of the tragic shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. Earlier this year a student in Wichita, KS was expelled for displaying artwork that was deemed “threatening.” In April another student in Boston was suspended from school for writing a horror story for an assignment in his English class. And in Arkansas a student was expelled for a private writing that was deemed a “terroristic threat.”

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