BINGHAMTON, N.Y. (CN) - A public high school illegally suspended a student after he sent an
image of a revolver in a text message criticizing a classmate, his parents claim in Federal Court.
The text-message conversation occurred in the evening, off school property, and involved only a few students, parents Dennis and Judy Lee Bradford say in their lawsuit against the Norwich City School District and its superintendent, Gerard O'Sullivan.
Norwich, pop. 7,000, is 70 miles northeast of Binghamton, in south central New York.
The Bradfords claim the suspension violated their son's First Amendment rights and interfered with their "liberty interest" in raising him as they see fit.
The Bradfords' son, 15, is identified in the complaint as CB, a 10th grader at Norwich High School with no previous disciplinary record.
He was suspended in November after an incident in which he allegedly exchanged menacing text messages with another student while at home at about 6:30 p.m. The messages were passed along to a third student and subsequently were seen by a female student, MY, who was the subject of the conversation.
The parents do not contest that their son "expressed a desire to harm another student" in the text message.
The complaint states: "The plaintiffs' 15-year-old son, CB, was at home at approximately 6:30 p.m. on November 13, 2012 having a private conversation with another student by way of text messaging in which he expressed a desire to harm another student. The defendants subsequently learned of the comments and suspended CB despite the fact that they concluded it was not a true threat, but because they believed that the substance of the conversation would ultimately circulate among other students and that it could result in a disruption at school."
The parents add: "That while caustic and mean-spirited, this private conversation did not constitute a threat to MY or anyone else, and the defendants in fact concluded that the statements allegedly made by CB were simply 'threatening in nature,' and that there was no 'actual intent to seriously harm the student.'"
MY showed the text messages to a teacher, who alerted the high school's interim principal. Three days after the exchanges, CB was suspended, his parents say.
After a formal hearing, the hearing officer recommended that CB be suspended for the rest of the academic year, but that he be allowed to return to school on Nov. 29 after signing a "Contract of Conduct." Such contracts stay a suspension with the understanding that it will be reimposed without a hearing for any subsequent violation of school rules, according to the state Education Department.
Judy Bradford testified at the hearing that she and her husband planned "appropriate disciplinary action against CB for his mean-spirited remarks," according to the complaint.
But because the text exchanges occurred at home and did not even use MY's name, she said at the hearing, "the same could not have caused any disruption at school" so disciplinary action by the school was unwarranted.
At the hearing, the complaint states, "the hearing officer then recited that portion of the text he found sufficient for the district to impose punishment on CB."
It included a reference to "dat bitch" and wanting to "push her down the stairs." CB allegedly inserted the image of a revolver at the end of a sentence that began "lk I just wanna ..."
The hearing officer found that while there was "no actual intent to seriously harm the student MY ... the text did cause disruption at school," as word of it circulated among students, according to the complaint.
The Bradfords claim the district violated their son's First Amendment rights by suspending him and recording the suspension in his school record - which will be available to college admissions officers.
They claim the district also violated their liberty interests, "especially with regard to conduct engaged in by their son in their home."
The Bradfords say they planned to punish their son by taking away his video games, some of his music and grounding him indefinitely.
But, they say, when the district "improperly interfered" with their discipline plans, it caused them "to reconsider punitive measures they have taken, to avoid CB being punished twice for conduct that ... while lawful, it was clearly inappropriate."
They want the suspension rescinded and expunged, and attorney's fees.
They are represented by Ronald Benjamin of Binghamton.
The Nov. 13 text message came 1 month and 1 day before the Newtown, Conn. school massacre.
reposted here with permission of Courthouse News Service