MISSISSIPPI — A high school student is suing his schoolboard, superintendent and principal after he was suspended for recording a rapsong off campus that referenced allegations of inappropriate behavior bycoaches with female students.
Taylor Bell and his mother filed a complaint in U.S.District Court on Jan. 24 against Itawamba County School Board, superintendentTeresa McNeece and Itawamba Agricultural High School principal Trae Wiygul.
Bell wrote the song — “PSK The Truth Needs to be Told” —after he said several young women told him that two coaches at the school werebehaving inappropriately toward female students. According to the complaint,this includes “inappropriate contact with intimate body parts of femalestudents.” Bell said he also witnessed inappropriate conduct firsthand.
The song, posted to Bell’s Facebook profile around Jan. 3,“metaphorically warned that the public might retaliate against the coaches forthis conduct,” according to the complaint.
Four days after the song was posted, Bell was called to meetwith school administrators, who accused him of making “false allegations andthreats.” He was indefinitely suspended. After a Jan. 26 hearing, a disciplinarycommittee found the song “didn’t constitute a direct threat, and, instead,amounted to harassment and intimidation of school teachers,” according to thecomplaint. The committee imposed a seven-day suspension and five weeks inItawamba Alternative School. The Itawamba County School Board upheld thedecision after a Feb. 7 hearing.
Wilbur Colom, attorney for Bell, said he is moving for apreliminary injunction this week because Bell is still attending alternativeschool.
“Can the school reach out and control the speech of astudent totally off campus? There are some laws that suggest that you cancontrol that conduct if it’s a disruption or a threat,” Colom said. “If thatconduct off campus is artistic, it may be hyperbolic or use metaphors to referto the school, but clearly it’s not threatening.”
Colom said Bell gave school officials at the hearing lettersfrom female students that verified what he wrote in the song. Colom said hedoes not know if the school district has looked into the allegations againstthe coaches.
The only previous disciplinary action against Bell was aone-day in-school suspension for too many tardies, according to the complaint.
Bell’s Facebook page is accessible only to pre-approvedfriends.
“The song was produced off school property, without usingschool resources, never played or performed at the school, not performed at aschool sponsored event, and never accessed by the student on a schoolproperty,” according to the complaint.
The suit claims the school violated the student’s FirstAmendment rights, violated his parents’ constitutional right to raise their childand exceeded the bounds of school authority under Mississippi law.
Bell seeks removal of the discipline from his record andreinstatement to his classes, as well as nominal damages. He also wants thedefendants kept “from enforcing the school disciplinary code against studentsfor expression that takes place outside of the school or school-sponsoredactivities.”
“He doesn’t want to be in the situation where they claimthat he is someone gold-digging for money,” Colom said. “He wants to be clearlyin a position of arguing about the First Amendment right issue and the factthat he considered himself engaged in a public discussion about potentialwrongdoing by members of the faculty.”
The high school was in the news last year after it canceledits prom after a female student requested to wear a tuxedo and bring hergirlfriend as her date. In July, the school district settled the case broughtby now-former student Constance McMillen after the U.S. District Court ofNorthern Mississippi ruled that the school violated her First Amendment rights.The school paid McMillen $35,000 in damages and amended its anti-discriminationpolicy to include gender identity and sexual orientation. In October, theschool was ordered to pay McMillen’s $81,000 in legal fees and expenses.
Superintendent Teresa McNeece and school district attorneyMichele Floyd declined to comment on the pending litigation.