Illinois high school suspends 10 for tweets

ILLINOIS — Ten students were suspended this week from an Illinois high school for comments they made on Twitter, and the principal says more suspensions could follow for students protesting the school’s decision.

The suspensions grew out of a school inquiry into one student’s sexually charged tweet about a teacher, said Granite City High School Principal Jim Greenwald. In the post, he called the teacher a “MILF.” The tweet was then retweeted by two students and favorited by a third.

Those four students were suspended Wednesday. School officials then found other posts, including one from a female student who joked about blowing up the school so students wouldn’t have to attend class. She and three students who retweeted the post were also suspended.

The suspensions have prompted backlash from other students, many of whom took to Twitter to express their anger. Students have posted fliers around the school and there are plans to make T-shirts as well, said C.J. Taylor, a senior who wasn’t suspended but who has distributed fliers.

Taylor said he and two other students were called to Greenwald’s office Thursday after he was seen putting up fliers in the hallway regarding the suspended students. One of those students was suspended, Taylor said. Greenwald said students who continue to protest will face suspensions.

DeAndre Williams was one of the four students suspended for tweeting about the teacher. The sophomore, who only retweeted the post, said he was shocked when he found out why he’d been called into Greenwald’s office Wednesday morning.

“I never even thought they could do something like this,” Williams said. “I’m an honors student. I’ve never gotten in trouble in my life.”

Williams said he wasn’t at school when he retweeted the post, which he shared because he thought it was funny but now acknowledges was disrespectful.

Greenwald said it doesn’t matter if the tweets were made at home or at school, or whether students posted the tweet or simply shared it. He said the school doesn’t typically monitor students’ social media activity, but will get involved if threats are made or if a post “crosses the line in terms of ethics.”

According to the school’s handbook, students can be punished for any “negative posting” made during or outside of school hours that causes teachers or students “to feel threatened or compromised.” Disciplinary action will be taken against students for online posts “containing threats, bullying, inappropriate pictures, allegations of inappropriate behavior, or such content that is likely to cause disruption in the school.”

Greenwald expressed disbelief at what the students had posted. He said he told them that if a teacher had said that to a colleague online, “we’d tell them we’re cleaning your office out the next day.”

The students face suspensions ranging from five to 10 days, Greenwald said. Students receive unexcused absences for every day missed, which result in lowered grades, by as much as two letter grades in some instances. They can’t participate in school activities while suspended.

The suspensions are the latest punishment to befall high school students for off-campus speech. Generally, student speech is looked at through the lens of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In Tinker, the Supreme Court ruled that students’ First Amendment rights don’t diminish at school unless the speech is shown to cause a “substantial and material disruption” to the school day.

Greenwald said the tweets hadn’t caused a disruption by the time students were suspended Wednesday, but that since then there’s been “a major disruption.”

The tweet about blowing up the school would be looked under a different standard than Tinker. “True threats” aren’t protected by the First Amendment, although several students said it was clear the tweet wasn’t serious.

By Sara Gregory, SPLC staff writer. Contact Gregory by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 125.