Mass. school suspends student involved in prior review fight for off-campus Web post

MASSACHUSETTS — The lawyer for a recent Salem HighSchool graduate has told school board members that he is prepared to sue theschool district if they do not review the conduct of the superintendent involvedin suspending his client, who previously had opposed a prior review policy forthe student newspaper. Raymond Buso argued that Todd Graham, a formerco-editor of the Witches Brew, a student newspaper at Salem High School,was wrongfully suspended on April 29 in retaliation for his challenges to thedistrict’s newly enacted prior review policy and for posting a messagecritical of the superintendent on an off-campus Web site.Schoolofficials have said that the seven-day suspension was for “threatening thehealth, safety and welfare of the entire Salem High School community through theuse of the Internet” and “causing a school disturbance as a resultof the above,” according to a June 6 article in the BostonGlobe.On April 29 Principal Ann Papagiotas put the school onlock-down and notified the Salem Police Department of an Internet message Grahamposted the previous day. After police had questioned Graham and told schooladministrators that they were not filing charges against him, SuperintendentHerb Levine held an emergency faculty meeting where he warned teachers to watchout for Graham and implied the student had mental problems, Buso said. Grahamlater had psychiatric tests done to prove he is mentally sound, Busosaid.The message in question reads: “I haven’t been in classfor the last couple of days due to being sick to my stomach because of theschool and what this is turning into. When I get my chance I will show everyonehow I feel. I have never held back before, and I won’t startnow.”Graham said he intended the posting to mean that he was notgoing to stay silent about Levine’s treatment of students during meetingsabout changes to the publications policy. “I was threatening toopen up the floodgates about what had happened between me and thesuperintendent,” he said. Buso said he is prepared to file suit toremove the suspension from Graham’s records. District policy states thatthe superintendent has the final say on suspensions. On May 27 Levine rejectedan appeal to remove the suspension.Now Buso is hoping that the SchoolCommittee will review Levine’s conduct. If the committee finds he actedimproperly, it could help his case in a future lawsuit to remove the suspensionfrom Graham’s transcripts. In a letter to School Committeemembers, Buso wrote that Levine should not have heard the suspension appealbecause he was intimately involved in the initial decision. He also citesimproper conduct during the emergency faculty meeting that was “misleadingby the omission of other relevant and material facts, and I believeintentionally retaliatory for prior interactions between Todd and thesuperintendent.” Buso also wrote that during another meeting with Grahamand his parents, “Dr. Levine threatened to use his position assuperintendent to prevent Todd from ever being accepted tocollege.”Levine and Papagiotas refused requests for comment.Graham has postponed college plans until the situation is resolvedbecause he said he does not want to apply with a suspension for possibleterrorist threats on his record.Buso said the school has no jurisdictionover Internet communications, which were not brought onto school grounds andoccurred off school property. Buso said that and any disturbances to the schoolwere caused by the administration’s reaction — not Graham’sposting. “They really don’t have a right to take anyjudicial action against him,” he said.In January Jeffrey Pyle, alawyer working on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts,wrote a letter to the district challenging a change that has since requiredprior review of the newspaper. Graham and co-editor Stacey Gagnon contacted thecivil liberties organization about the policy. Newspaper adviser PamelaHebert resigned from the paper in December: “[I] do not want to be accusedof insubordination which, as Dr. Levine has clearly stated, would result in mytermination,” she wrote in a letter to Papagiotas. “I personally donot want to be in the middle of any legal battles that mayensue.”The school decided to create a prior review policy afterPapagiotas ordered that the December issue’s publication be delayed untilstudents changed editorials to show the school in a more positive light. Theeditorials were critical of the school’s bans on hats and eating inclass.Gagnon said she will see how the policy works before decidingwhether to file a formal appeal.She said she is the only student workingon the newspaper after Graham resigned following his suspension.“I think a lot of [students] are now afraid because theydon’t want to get in trouble,” she said. “I don’t reallyblame them, but students shouldn’t be afraid to say what they believe ina responsible manner.”

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