Constitutional Claim Against High School

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) - A high school unconstitutionally suspended a freshman for a harmless comment he wrote at home on his Facebook page, the boy and his family claim in court.
     R.L., a 15-year-old from Manchester, Pa., and his parents, Jill and Michael Lordan, sued Central York School District, its Superintendent Michael Snell and Central York High School assistant principal Jeffrey Hamme, in Federal Court.
     The Lordans say the defendants used "unconstitutionally vague rules as a basis for discipline" and exceeded their authority by punishing the boy for conduct that was off-grounds and out-of-school.
     "R.L. had no history of discipline prior to the events described in this action," the complaint states.
     It continues: "On October 23, 2013, as a result of a bomb threat, the high school was evacuated at approximately 9:30 a.m. and students, including R.L., were
     dismissed and sent home at approximately 11:30 a.m.
     "Following the evacuation, while away from school property, using a personal machine, R.L. published a post on his Facebook page which read: 'Plot
     twist: They don't find the bomb and it goes off tomorrow.' or 'Plot twist: Bomb
     not found. Goes off tomorrow.'
     The parents add: "The facts of this case indicate that R.L's post caused no further disruption to the district or the educational process than it was experiencing already as a result of a legitimate bomb threat, unrelated to R.L."
     They say that the "post was an expression of R.L.'s anxiety regarding the bomb threat, and a misplaced attempt at humor. The post did not represent a true threat or obscenity as those terms are defined. R.L.'s use of the term 'plot twist' would have been recognized as sarcasm by R.L.'s peers, as R.L. uses the term regularly in his vernacular to signify sarcasm and irony."
     R.L. says he removed the post from his Facebook page "when he learned that it could be misinterpreted, but before he was aware that the district would use the post as the basis for disciplinary action against him. As a result, the plaintiffs do not have a record of the precise language used in the post."
     The Lordans say the defendants were "aware of R.L.'s use of the term 'plot twist' to signify sarcasm, as he had used it in a post on his Twitter account during an emergency drill at the high school. The district had taken note of R.L.'s 'Tweet' during the earlier intruder drill, but never discussed the matter with R.L. or his parents until after his October 23, 2013 Facebook post."
     Though the Facebook post "was not materially disruptive to the school environment or a direct threat to anyone," the school asked R.L.'s father to meet with Superintendent Snell at the high school football game the next evening, and to bring his son, according to the complaint.
     There, R.L. says, he "acknowledged having authored the post, and agreed, in retrospect, that it had been an ill-advised publication under the circumstances."
     Snell then said the boy would be suspended for 10 days, despite failing to "identify any particular district policy or rule that R.L. was alleged to have violated," the family says.
     R.L's parents received a letter stating that his suspension was a result of a "terroristic or bomb threat" and the Springettsbury Township Police Department called the Lordans to ask R.L. to go in for questioning the next day.
     "Police determined that R.L. was not involved in the bomb threat received by the school, and that no charges against R.L. were warranted," the complaint states. "The police chief expressed surprise about the severity of the district's initial discipline of R.L. based on the facts, as well as concern about the ramifications of the punishment on R.L. The police chief offered Mr. and Mrs. Lordan advice on securing R.L's quick return to school." (27)
     On October 25, R.L.'s parents met with school administrators, who acknowledged that R.L. was not a suspect, but that he was suspended anyway for "engaging in behavior that caused a disruption to the school environment" and "[b]ehavior or items brought to school that are inappropriate, that may cause a disruption to the school environment."
     At his Nov. 6 disciplinary hearing, R.L. was suspended for an additional 13 days for "a number of erroneous and unsupported findings of fact based on the evidence and testimony," which claimed that R.L. had posted a bomb threat, that he admitted doing so, and that his parents apologized for the incident, the family says.
     The Lordans say that "while R.L. acknowledged publishing the Facebook post at issue, he never acknowledged making a 'bomb threat.' In fact, no witness at the hearing suggested that R.L.'s Facebook post amounted to a 'bomb threat,' and the district had specifically amended the earlier charges against R.L. to eliminate its allegation that R.L. had made a terroristic or bomb threat."
     The lawsuit continues: "Neither R.L., nor his parents, nor anyone else for that matter, suggested at the hearing that R.L.'s actions caused a 'substantial disruption' to the school environment. In fact, neither R.L. nor his parents acknowledged having caused any disruption at all to the school or educational process. R.L. apologized and expressed regret for his actions, and Mrs. Lordan apologized for any concern or distraction caused by R.L.'s Facebook post. But neither R.L., nor his mother spoke of any disruption to the district, much less causing one.
     "No testimony or evidence produced at the hearing supported a finding that R.L's post amounted to a threat to anyone or anything. Furthermore, no testimony or evidence produced at the hearing supported a finding that R.L.'s post caused or would have caused a material or substantial disruption to the operations of the District."
     The Lordans say that the "provisions in the district's student handbook under which R.L. was punished are unconstitutionally overbroad and vague on their face as applied in this case as they fail to distinguish out-of-school speech from in-school expression and they are not limited to student speech that causes a material and substantial disruption to the school day. ...
     "The punishment of R.L. for his post which did not materially and substantially interfere with the educational process, threaten serious harm, encourage unlawful activity or interfere with another individual's rights was a violation of Pennsylvania law."
     R.L. missed school from Oct. 24 through Dec. 3, received below his average grades on exams when he returned to school, missed his last football games of the season and the team banquet, missed his school play, asked his parents to find a different school for him to go to and now has a permanent record of expulsion in his school file.
     The Lordans seek an order that expunges and eliminates R.L.'s disciplinary and expulsion records and files, the revision or elimination of unconstitutionally vague school policies, damages for unlawful discipline and exclusion of R.L. from Central York High School and its activities, attorney's fees and costs.
     They are represented by Zachary Nahass of the CGA Law Firm in York.