GREENEVILLE, Miss. (CN) – A school principal suspended and transferred a computer-savvy 8th-grader, and the superintendent fired his mom, who was a school secretary, on the baseless belief that the student had installed a key-log program on the school’s computer system to help the principal’s wife spy on him, the mother and son claim in Federal Court.
Phyllis Harris and her son sued the Pontotoc County School District and Superintendent Ken Roye, alleging defamation, wrongful firing and constitutional violations. Her son is an 8th-grader at South Pontotoc Middle School, where the mom worked as a secretary.
They claim that on Oct. 17, 2008, the boy was removed from class and “interrogated” by four school officials “regarding their belief that [the boy] had installed a key logger on the school’s computer system. During the interrogation, [the boy] handed them a computer disk which contained a demonstration program which told how a key logger program worked, but was not an actual key logger program.
“[The boy] had brought the demonstration disk to school at the request of the principal’s wife, who also worked at the school,” the complaint states. “She knew of [his] proficiency with computers and had asked him about key logger programs. When [the boy] related this to school officials, the principal accused [the boy] of helping the principal’s wife spy on him. Also, during the interrogation, [the boy] was threatened with the inability to attend college, criminal charges and jail time and the possibility that his mother would lose her job.”
Throughout the ensuing brouhaha, the boy denied having installed a key logger program on the school’s system, and the school officials were never able to produce evidence he did, the family says.
Nonetheless, the boy was suspended and transferred to an alternative school for 45 days. “In a letter to plaintiffs, the principal admits that he had no evidence, and that the investigation was just starting, but he believed [the boy] was guilty, and thus he was suspending [him],” the complaint states.
The mom appealed to the superintendent, who allegedly “denied [that] plaintiffs were entitled to due process in the matter. Further, during this meeting, defendant Roye threatened plaintiff Phyllis Harris with loss of her job if she refused to accept [her son’s] punishment.”
On Oct. 22, Superintendent Roye told the mom that her son would be sent to the alternative school for 45 days, and that’s where he attended classes until January this year, according to the complaint.
“Plaintiffs refused to accept the punishment and again requested the evidence against [the boy] as well as a hearing with the school board,” the complaint states. “Defendant Roye then fired plaintiff Phyllis Harris.”
The boy’s father was allowed to speak to the school board in November. Having heard nothing, he called Roye in December, who told him his boy was being punished “for having the ‘intent’ to damage the school computer system. … In short, defendant’s investigation showed [the boy] was innocent of the allegations, but the punishment of 45 days at the alternative school would not be changed.”
The family seeks punitive damages for constitutional violations, defamation, lost income and retaliation. They are represented by W. Brent McBride of Tupelo.