Teenagers go home after school and spend much of their time online, but school rules about what they say and do follow them after the last bell rings.
Three students at Leesville Road Middle School in Raleigh found out their off-campus behavior isn’t off limits when they were disciplined last week for a viral video showing them making derogatory remarks about different racial and ethnic groups and chanting “KKK, KKK.”
The students ran afoul of a policy used by Wake County and other school systems nationally that warns students their “conduct at any time, place, or cyberspace, on or off campus” can be subject to punishment if it severely disrupts the school.
In a news conference Tuesday, Wake school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said what was seen and heard in the Leesville video is “horrific and reprehensible.” She said school leaders will work to rebuild the community’s trust in North Carolina’s largest school system.
“Those are our students,” Johnson-Hostler said. “When they come in our buildings, we want to ensure that every student feels, as I stated in our strategic plan, that those are respectful, inviting and supportive places for all of our students.”
But Wake’s actions against the Leesville students have also drawn complaints on social media from people who say students shouldn’t be punished for what they say when they’re off campus and not on school time.
The American Civil Liberties Union has interceded on behalf of some students who have been disciplined, including a high school student in Alaska who was suspended for displaying a banner off school property that said, “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”
“The protection of students’ rights to free speech and privacy – in and out of school – is essential for ensuring that schools provide both quality education and training in our democratic system and values,” the ACLU says on its website. “Unfortunately, schools continue to demonstrate a disturbing willingness to abridge students’ rights.”
The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t ruled yet on whether school districts can punish students for their off-campus behavior, according to Carolyn Schurr Levin, an attorney and adviser for the Student Press Law Center.
Schurr Levin said school districts have applied the standard for disciplining students for their on-campus behavior to their off-campus behavior. In the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District case, the Supreme Court found that student speech can’t be censored unless it “materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.”
“With regard to the First Amendment, the United States Supreme Court has held that student speech is not protected and may be prohibited and punished if it causes or is reasonably likely to cause a ‘substantial disruption of or material interference with school activities’ or an ‘invasion of the rights of others,’” Neal Ramee, an attorney for the Wake school system, said in a written statement. “It is not necessary to wait for an actual disruption.”
Schurr Levin said some federal appellate courts have sided more with students and others more with school administrators.
“Eventually the issue is going to be heard by the Supreme Court because there’s no clear standard for school administrators to apply,” Schurr Levin said in an interview Tuesday. “There has to be a clear nationwide standard. You can’t have school administration in one state deciding one way and administrators in another state deciding another.”
The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over North Carolina, ruled in 2011 in favor of a West Virginia school district that suspended a high school student for cyberbullying a classmate. Ramee said the appellate ruling means North Carolina school officials can prohibit and punish off-campus student cyber-speech if it is reasonably foreseeable that the speech will eventually “reach the school” and cause a disruption there.
It was in that legal environment last week that Cindy Kremer, principal of Leesville Middle, told parents in a schoolwide message that three students posted online a video that “was a racist rant filled with racist imagery.”
In the Leesville video, the students can be heard saying “if you’re in America, we don’t accept” blacks, Jews, Arabs or Hispanics. The students used racist slurs to describe African-Americans and Hispanics.
“Go back to the fields of Alabama,” a student says in the video. “Go back to the factories in Mississippi. You don’t deserve freedom.”
The video also includes the students chanting “KKK, KKK.”
Tionda Holt, a Leesville parent, said the video was widely discussed on campus last Wednesday among students. She said it left the minority students, including her daughter, feeling upset.
Kremer told parents that the students “received appropriate disciplinary action.” School officials have cited federal privacy laws for not saying what discipline was given. But Holt said families have heard that the three eighth-grade students were suspended for three days.
The timing of the Leesville incident was especially awkward for Wake school officials, who were dealing with the fallout of a viral video showing a confrontation between two Wake Forest High School students.
The video showed Micah Speed, 15, pulling a white classmate to the floor twice on March 2, including once after being called a “black piece of (expletive).” Speed, who was suspended for five days, has said his actions were triggered by months of racial harassment and a death threat from the student that were not dealt with by the school.
Johnson-Hostler announced that all of Wake’s principals will discuss the racial issues raised in the videos at a previously scheduled meeting Thursday. She said administrators will report back to the board with some short-term and long-term solutions.
“We are absolutely committed to addressing the racial tensions in our school system, not by ourselves but as a community,” Johnson-Hostler said.