Student punished for Web posting critical of school

MASSACHUSETTS — A recent high school graduate has put offapplying to college because he does not want admissions officers to see adisciplinary marking on his record for “attempted terroristactivities.”

Todd Graham, former co-editor of the WitchesBrew, a student newspaper at Salem High School, was suspended for seven daysfor posting a message from home on a nonschool-sponsored Web site critical ofthe school. 

The message read: “I haven’t been in class forthe last couple of days due to being sick to my stomach because of the schooland what this is turning into. When I get my chance I will show everyone how Ifeel. I have never held back before, and I won’t startnow.”

Graham said the posting meant that he was not going to besilenced about his opposition to the school district’s newly enactedstudent publications prior review policy and Superintendent Herb Levine’streatment of students during meetings about the change. In December,Principal Ann Papagiotas ordered the newspaper’s publication date delayeduntil students changed editorials on low student moral and school policiesforbidding hats and eating in classrooms. The school then established a priorreview policy breaking with the state’s tradition of only allowingcensorship of a student publication if it would lead to a substantial disruptionat the school. 

Graham contacted Jeffrey Pyle, an attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who wrote a letterto Levine opposing the policy. 

“I was threatening to open up thefloodgates about what had happened between me and the superintendent,”Graham said.

In a letter to the Salem School Committee, Raymond Buso,Graham’s attorney, wrote that during a meeting with Graham and hisparents, “Dr. Levine threatened to use his position as superintendent toprevent Todd from ever being accepted to college.” 

Administratorssay, however, that the posting was “threatening the health, safety andwelfare of the entire Salem High School community through the use of theInternet” and “causing a school disturbance as a result of theabove,” according to a June 6 article in the BostonGlobe.

Levine and Papagiotas refused requests for comment.Buso said the school has no jurisdiction over Internet communications,which he said in this case were not brought onto school grounds, occurred offschool property, and any disturbances to the school were caused by theadministration’s reactions — not Graham’s posting. 

“They really don’t have a right to take any judicial actionagainst him,” he said.Still, across the country students arefacing similar legal battles to get disciplinary action for Internetcommunications removed from their records. In New Jersey, a middleschool student sued his school district because he was suspended for 10 days,removed from the baseball team and barred from a school trip for creating a Website that said the school was “just downright boring.” 

In Georgia,two recent graduates settled a lawsuit for $95,000, and the school district willremove suspensions from their records for posting messages the school ruled asthreatening to a teacher. And in Ohio, a high school student is appealing to thestate Board of Education — but may seek legal remedies — to have a10-day suspension removed from his record for including a link on his personalWeb site to another site that included content administrators called violent andthreatening.

Graham and Buso said they are prepared to continue workingto get Graham’s record cleared even in the face of an administrativeroadblock. In early July, Superintendent Herb Levine resigned and maycontinue as a consultant with the district, but his future is uncertain, as theSchool Committee must approve hiring him. Salem City Councilor Thomas Furey, whohas called for Papagiotas to be fired or resign for unrelated incidents, isholding a public hearing about problems at Salem High School. 

Buso hopesthe committee will review Levine’s and Papagiotas’ actions involvingGraham, and if the committee finds that either acted improperly, it could helpany future lawsuits to remove the suspension from Graham’s transcripts.

Read previous coverage