Lawsuit alleges Ohio high school students were illegally punished for social media posts

OHIO — The parents of four high school students have filed a federal suit against their school and local police department, claiming the students were illegally punished for social media posts that school administrators saw as threats.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio, the parents claim their children, ages 15-17, were victims of racial profiling and were denied their rights after Colerain High School officials allowed Colerain Township Police Department to detain the students for six hours.

On April 10, several African-American students at the high school, including the four represented in the lawsuit, were held “in a windowless room guarded by armed police officers,” according to the suit, and interrogated about social media posts, which included music videos performed by the rap group Money Gang — a group of student athletes who made the videos outside of school hours. Deeming the content of the posts threatening, administrators suspended the students and later expelled them for the posts.

In the postings collected by school staff and police, more than a dozen African-American students were accused by school administrators of making hand gestures that insinuated involvement in a gang, according to the lawsuit. However, Colerain Chief of Police Mark Denney and Northwest Local School District Superintendent Andrew Jackson both said they believed the students not to be part of a gang, but that the actions taken April 10 were to dispel the rumors of one, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also claims that white students at the high school “engaged in similar conduct and were neither questioned, searched, seized nor disciplined.”

Robert Newman, an attorney representing the parents, said the students were within their First Amendment rights to create the rap videos, which the school violated.

“There’s a constitutional claim that they were illegally searched and illegally detained for up to six hours without filing any contact to their parents, and then subsequently several of the students have been harassed by the police,” he said.

Following the events of April 10, Newman said one student was harassed with a citation for jaywalking on June 30 in a location where “you couldn’t possibly jaywalk.” On Aug. 8, police asked one of the students and his friend to leave a public event because of his affiliation with Money Gang, according to the lawsuit.

The parents’ lawsuit asks for any references to suspension or expulsion to be removed from the students’ records, according to the lawsuit. They also ask for procedural changes to the school district and police department’s policies so that “the same constitutional violations do not happen again” to the students, in addition to $25,000 in compensatory and punitive damages.

The school district’s attorney, John Concannon, said the students’ rights were not violated and that a racial issue does not exist. Instead, he said the students were punished for the nature of the videos, which he argued were often filmed on campus and contained “threatening behavior.”

Concannon said the disciplinary actions have nothing to do with racial stereotyping. He claims that students of other races had been disciplined as well.

“We don’t consider it a race case, we consider it a case of misbehavior,” he said. “And in this case they happen to be primarily the same race.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Michael Bragg by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.