Students sue Ind. middle school after being expelled for Facebook comments

INDIANA — Threemiddle school students sued Griffith Public Schools on Tuesday, claiming theirFirst Amendment rights were violated after being expelled for a conversationthey had on Facebook.

The three 14 year-old girls had aconversation in the “comments” section on one of their profiles using theirpersonal computers after school.

According to the complaint, “theconversation spanned numerous subjects, from the pain of cutting oneself whileshaving to the girls’ friendship, before turning to a discussion of which oftheir classmates they would kill if they had the chance.”

The lawsuit, filed by the American CivilLiberties Union of Indiana, states that the three eighth graders used emoticonsand abbreviations like LOL to suggest humor, indicating the conversation wasnot to be taken seriously.

On Jan. 26 the girls were suspended forten days before being expelled Feb. 10 from Griffith Middle School.

“The girls were simply engaged in teenagebanter,” the complaint states.

The mother of one of the girls’classmates complained to Edward Skaggs, the principal of Griffith MiddleSchool, and provided a copy of the conversation to him, according to thecomplaint.

The girls were expelled for violating thedistrict’s bullying, harassment and intimidation policy, according to thecomplaint. They will be allowed to enter high school in August.

The district’s policy states that,“Bullying is defined as a deliberately aggressive of hurtful behavior towardanother person that is repeated over time.” The policy mentions bullying pertainingto off-campus activities “that cause or threaten to cause a substantialdisruption at school.”

Griffith School District attorney RhettTauber could not be reached for comment.

Gavin Rose, staff attorney with the ACLUof Indiana and the girls’ attorney, said the First Amendment trumps the studenthandbook.

“I think that under the rightcircumstances schools can discipline students if their speech constitutes atrue threat, that is, if a reasonable person looking at this conversation wouldthink that these girls are inflicting imminent harm against someone,” Rosesaid. “Or else, they can discipline someone under the Tinker standard if they think the speech is of a variety that is likely tosubstantially disrupt the educational environment,” Rose said. “I think this,while there might be gray areas on those issues, I think this is one of thoseplaces that falls squarely on the First Amendment.”

Rose said the conversation occurred on aTuesday afternoon. The girls attended school on Wednesday and nothing out ofthe ordinary happened. On Thursday the girls were called into the principal’soffice separately, receiving 10-day suspensions with recommendation forexpulsion.

“We are seeking compensation for theiremotional harm,” Rose said. “Obviously, this is not something any eighth graderwants to happen and it has caused some harm. One of the girls was forced to payout of pocket for a home school program.”

The girls are seeking money damages and adeclaration that their rights were violated, and they want the disciplineexpunged from their records.