Minnesota student suspended for a tweet about a teacher sues school district, police chief

MINNESOTA — A student who was suspended from his high school for a sarcastic tweet filed a lawsuit against his Minnesota school district Tuesday.

Reid Sagehorn was suspended from Rogers High School in February and threatened with expulsion for his tweet, where he said “Actually, yeah” in response to an anonymous post on a website called “Roger confessions” that said Sagehorn had “made out” with a teacher. He ultimately withdrew and transferred to another high school.

In the lawsuit – which was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota – and in media accounts since February, Sagehorn said the tweet was meant to be taken sarcastically. Administrators though, took the allegation of teacher misconduct seriously, and launched an investigation. They found no evidence of an inappropriate relationship, according to CBS Minnesota.

Sagehorn was first suspended for five days in February for “threatening, intimidating, or assault of a teacher, administrator or other staff member,” according to the lawsuit. That suspension was then doubled, and the principal told Sagehorn’s parents that he would be recommending expulsion through April 22 to the school board.

The notice of proposed expulsion stated that Sagehorn caused disruption in the school, but the lawsuit argues the only disruption occurred as a result to the “overreaction” to the tweet by administrators. The school never specified what disruption he caused, according to the lawsuit.

Sagehorn’s lawsuit argues the tweet – which Sagehorn posted outside of school hours, off school grounds, not at a school-sponsored event and without using school property – was protected speech. While sarcastic, it was not “a true threat, nor was it reasonably calculated to reach the school environment and so egregious as to pose a serious safety risk or other substantial disruption in that environment.”

By suspending him for the tweet, the school district violated his First Amendment rights, the suit alleges. Sagehorn’s lawsuit also argues that the school violated his right to due process guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

According to the lawsuit, the family asked for a hearing in front of the hearing officer to contest the expulsion, but were told it would be meaningless because the school board – who decided if he’d be expelled – would agree with the expulsion. The family was also told the school would extend Sagehorn’s expulsion from April 22 to the entire school year if they requested a hearing, the lawsuit states.

Sagehorn names Rogers police Chief Chief Jeffrey Beahen in the suit, and alleges he was defamed when Beahen spread false news to the media that Sagehorn could face felony charges, according to the lawsuit.

Beahen had been quoted saying Sagehorn’s actions were like “crying or yelling ‘Fire!’ in a movie theater or saying ‘I got a bomb!’ on a plane.” Beahen also made no attempt to conceal or protect Sagehorn’s identity, even though he was a minor at the time. The chief later admitted he “erred” after the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said they wouldn’t press any charges.

Kathy Bresemen, an administrative assistantion at Rogers Police Department, said Beahen and officer Stephen Sarazin, who is also being sued, aren’t commenting on the case. Sarazin was the public liaison officer at the school.

Since the incident, Sagehorn and his parents say they have tried to work with the school to erase the record of the suspension.

Sagehorn was a member of the National Honor Society, four-time recipient of the Scholastic Achievement Award, varsity letterman in football, basketball and baseball, and the captain of his basketball and football teams. With the exception of a parking ticket, he had never been disciplined by the school before, according to the lawsuit.

When the school first approached Sagehorn, he attempted to meet with the teacher he tweeted about to apologize for any embarrassment it may have caused her and explain that it was meant to be sarcastic. He was unable to find her before being suspended. Later, he wrote her a letter apologizing, which his sister delivered.

His family also proposed for Sagehorn to formally speak to students about the troubles of using social media and about how sarcasm doesn’t translate over the internet, which the school didn’t accept.

Superintendent Mark Bezek and Principal Roman Pierskalla could not be reached for comment. Ron Rosenbaum, the attorney representing Sagehorn, declined to comment on the suit, saying “the complaint speaks for itself.”

“At this point we feel that this matter should be handled in court rather than in the media,” Rosenbaum said.

Sagehorn is asking for the school district to change its policies, procedures and practices to protect out-of-school speech for students when there’s no true threat or other risk to the school environment.

He’s also requesting a jury trial, an order expunging any reference to his suspension and expulsion from his transcripts and student files, monetary judgements against Pierskalla, Bezek, Assistant Superintendent Jana Hennen-Burr, Beahen and Sarazin for compensatory and punitive damages and reasonable attorney fees.

Contact Kass by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.