Fla. high school principal retires after students said she suppressed their online speech

FLORIDA — The principal at a Miami high school suddenly retired Wednesday after her efforts to rein in student social media activity went viral, causing sweeping community outrage.

Lucia Cox announced she had retired from Miami Sunset Senior High School amid allegations she tried to hush students who spoke out about the school’s unsanitary conditions, encroaching on the students’ free speech rights.

On Jan. 7, a student posted to Tumblr photos, purportedly taken at the school, of mold blossoming in cafeteria juice boxes, mildew creeping up a shower wall, yellowish water from a school drinking fountain and cockroaches lurking in the building’s bathrooms and cafeteria. Captions and comments decried unsanitary conditions and demanded change.

When the photos were posted to BuzzFeed’s community page, they sparked conversation among alumni.

The next day, students used Twitter to complain that administrators had threatened them for speaking out on the social-media platform. Students who posted about the unsanitary conditions were “forced to write apology letters and are being threatened with suspension and/or expulsion,” according to the BuzzFeed post, which was published anonymously.

John Schuster, a Miami-Dade County School District spokesman, confirmed that two students were called to the principal’s office and asked to write apology letters because their postings contained profanity. In order to reinforce appropriate use of social media, the students were asked to review the district’s Acceptable Use Policy, which bans use of profanity or vulgarity.

He denied administrators threatened to suspend the students.

“There were no reprimands in place for any student for any postings that were made on the Internet,” he said.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ communications office issued a statement insisting that the district supports student freedom of speech

“The situation at Miami Sunset Senior High School is not an issue involving freedom of speech,” according to the statement. “It is an issue involving the respectful use of social media. The students’ use of profane language in a message that would be seen as offensive to anyone who read it is a violation of the School Board’s Acceptable Use Policy for the Internet.”

Schuster said juice boxes had been improperly refrigerated over winter break, causing the mold, and cafeteria staff discarded them as soon as students complained.

In an earlier interview with the weekly newspaper Miami New Times, Schuster denied knowing about mold in the building and suggested the photos of the cockroaches were Photoshopped.

But records obtained by the Miami Herald show the school failed a Department of Health facilities inspection on Jan. 13 after inspectors found mold on a ceiling tile and in a storage room, but the school passed a second health inspection Jan. 21.

The Herald also obtained records showing the staff had complained to Cox about the school’s cleanliness since at least October 2014.

“Among the concerns: Garbage cans that are never emptied, attracting roaches. Floors that have never been mopped. Restrooms that have gone weeks without hand soap,” the newspaper reported.

As some students planned to boycott the cafeteria during lunch periods on Jan 12 and 13, Cox made an announcement over the school’s intercom system on Jan. 9 warning that any protest not sanctioned by the school could result in cancellation of school activities or events.

The protest, Schuster said, would have been in direct violation of the district’s student protest policy, which says students must notify school officials of organized demonstrations.

“It’s largely done as a safety measure,” Schuster said.

On the same recording, Cox condemned retweeting the series of damning photos, scolding students for spreading “rumors” and posting things on social media that would “jeopardize our school’s reputation.” A Sunset student provided the SPLC with a recording of the announcement, but requested to remain anonymous for fear of being punished.

“Any rumors of anything being cancelled is answered by a simple question to the activities director, any administrator, myself, your teachers,” Cox said during the announcement. “But I will not tolerate anything that will jeopardize our school’s reputation for something that is an interior motive is to disrupt. Any time you disrupt, each individual is responsible for their own actions.”

Students responded with online efforts to raise awareness and rally support. A group of students started an anonymous Twitter account, @GUOFB, an acronym for “Give Us Our Future Back,” dedicated retweeting relevant news items and organizing peaceful protests.

The 15 students behind the Twitter, none of whom would speak on the record, said the account is a platform where they can safely question administrative policies and decisions.

A petition for Cox’s removal on Change.org had 1,092 supporters as of Thursday morning.

Alumni have also banded together to denounce perceived free speech restrictions at Sunset. Bobby Joe Bracy, a law student at Florida International University, who graduated from Miami Sunset in 2004, posted a letter to Facebook addressing Sunset’s administration and criticizing their “unusually aggressive stance against free speech.”

Bracy said he decided to write the letter after hearing that students were being threatened with discipline for retweeting the photos.

Bracy said one student, hospitalized with food poisoning after drinking the rancid juice, tweeted that Sunset had “got me fucked up.”

“When something’s ‘got you fucked up,’ that means ‘not feeling well,’ and so literally, this student was commenting that ‘Sunset got me sick, I’m in the hospital now with food poisoning,’” Bracy said.

Rumors that a student had been hospitalized with food poisoning after drinking the spoiled juice had reached district officials, Schuster said, but they received no official documentation confirming the incident.

Sunset is in the early stages of a $6 million renovation, including new plumbing, a new track and painting throughout the school.

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6318.