Four high school students suspended by Saline Area Schools for using racist language and images in a Snapchat group are suing the district and administrators in U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan. Attorney David Kallman, who represents four of six high school students disciplined by the district, argues the district lacked the authority to discipline the students because the conduct took place away from the school and not engaging in school-related activities or using school equipment.
(CLICK HERE FOR THE LAWSUIT)
“The school is acting is acting outside the scope of its authority, has no legal right to impose the discipline carried out, and has violated our clients’ constitutional rights by their reckless and hasty rush to judgment,” Kallman stated in a press release issued Tuesday.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday after Kallman was unable to negotiate a settlement to get all four students back in the classroom. The lawsuit contends two of the students returned to school Monday, Feb. 10, and that the district recommended expulsion for the other two students.
The plaintiffs are seeking money damages, declaration the acts of the defendants were unconstitutional, expungement of related discipline from their records, changes in policies and procedures in the school district, and court costs and attorney fees.
Contacted Friday for comment, Superintendent Scot Graden said it was district policy to not comment on disciplinary action.
“As you know, we can't discuss student discipline in specifics. I will say, issues that impact the school environment are the purview of the District,” Graden wrote in an email.
At Tuesday’s Board of Education meeting, Vice President Paul Hynek said the district would not divulge information about discipline meted out by the district. He advised people to ignore social media chatter speculating about the discipline.
“I see a lot of stuff out there, speculating what will happen. Even the board’s not made aware of what will happen. There’s a reason for that, because if there are appeals given, the board is the final in the chain of command,” Hynek said.
The lawsuit lists four minor caucasian males as the plaintiffs. The defendants are Saline Area Schools, the Saline Board of Education, superintendent Scot Graden, assistant superintendent Steve Laatsch, Saline High School principal David Raft, assistant high school principals Joe Palka, Theresa Stager, and Kirk Evenson, and director of student services Molly Garcia.
The Board of Education went into executive session at the end of Tuesday’s meeting to discuss a legal opinion.
The lawsuit also challenges the narrative around the incident that sparked an eye-opening community dialogue about race that has been controversial, tense, emotional and cathartic. Before Tuesday, the general story has been that white students invited black students into a Snapchat group laced with racial slurs, images, memes and slogans.
According to the lawsuit, the original Snapchat group was created by one caucasian and one African-American student. They added other students, white and black. And then they began using racist language. The lawsuit suggests one African-American student “jokingly suggested that everyone on the chat say the ‘N’ word at the same time to stop racism and many of the children did so.” Then the African-American students left the chat group, which caused the deletion of the content they posted, according to the lawsuit. A black student arrived later and saw only posts by white students.
He recorded a video of the Snapchat and shared it with friends, calling attention to the racism he and other students face, he later told The Saline Post.
The attorney said his clients understand what they did was wrong - but he said it’s not fair to label them racist.
“All the students understand what they posted was inappropriate and wrong. But most of the kids on that talk were being inappropriate. They were being kids. They made a mistake,” Kallman said. “The words they used were racist, but you have to understand how kids talk to each other. These words didn’t come from the heart of a racist.”
The lawsuit also alleges school officials “rushed to judgment” and labeled students “racists” in a letter to the community and in interviews with the media - “alienating and stigmatizing” the plaintiffs. The lawsuit also argues students were denied due process - that students were suspended the morning after the Snapchat before completion of an investigation or notification of parents.
As a result, the lawsuit argues, the plaintiffs have suffered academically and also been banned from extracurricular activities.
According to the lawsuit, nothing in the School Code Act or Matt Epling Safe School Law grants the district to police or punish speech away from school, school-related activities or school devices.
The lawsuit also alleges Saline High School teachers spoke about the Snapchat incident with students at school and suggested the plaintiffs be criminally prosecuted.
The lawsuit also alleges the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ first amendment rights.