(CN) – East Hampton High School was justified in blocking a student rumored to have made a racially incendiary remark about Hispanics from returning to school to declare his innocence, the 2nd Circuit ruled, citing safety concerns.
A few days after a Hispanic student was killed in a motorcycle accident in April 2004, a rumor spread that sophomore Daniel DeFabio had commented to a friend, “one down, forty thousand to go,” allegedly referring to the deceased student’s ethnicity.
Outraged students threatened to kill DeFabio or bomb his house, requiring police to escort him from the school as students yelled at him in Spanish. The principal told DeFabio’s mother that Daniel should stay home for a few days for his own protection, until tensions calmed.
The next day, his mother asked the school to read over the school’s public announcement system, or allow her son to read during a school assembly, a letter declaring his innocence.
The principal refused, saying Daniel’s presence or words could further aggravate tensions. Because Daniel received several threatening phone calls since the incident, police had been called to patrol his house for the rest of the week.
Four days after the alleged comment, Superintendent Raymond Gualteri held an informal hearing and determined that Daniel had, in fact, made the racial remark. He suspended Daniel for the rest of the school year.
Gualteri’s decision was later overturned by the New York Commissioner of Education, and the incident was expunged from Daniel’s record.
That summer, threats and harassment against Daniel continued.
He and his mother, Patricia DeFabio, sued the East Hampton Union Free School District and various officials in 2007 over their refusal to let Daniel return to school to clear his name.
Other students allegedly viewed Daniel’s absence and silence after the incident as an indicator of guilt.
A federal judge dismissed the DeFabios’ First Amendment claims, and the Manhattan-based 2nd Circuit affirmed.
Assuming Daniel had a free-speech right to return to school and declare his innocence, the court wrote, it was “objectively reasonable” for school officials to bar his return “in light of repeated and serious threats to Daniel’s physical safety.”
“There is no question that Daniel’s mere presence in school, with or without his speech, would likely result in violence or the threat of violence” and would thus substantially disrupt school, the court concluded.