What Consequences for High School Freshmen’s Racist Online Petition?–Plaintiff A v. Park Hill School District

Yet another case involving high school students being disciplined for doing stupid things online. Ugh.

This case involves high school freshmen at a Missouri public school. In September 2021, while riding on a school bus to a football game, Plaintiff A created a Change.org petition entitled “Start slavery again” targeting a peer, TRL. Plaintiff A added a photo of TRL to the petition plus other racist remarks. Plaintiff A claims that he did all this with TRL’s consent and encouragement, but TRL later disputed that characterization. Plaintiff A circulated the petition to the school football team. The other plaintiffs added comments in favor of slavery and against blacks. [Note: I originally quoted the court opinion about the exact statements of the other plaintiffs, but that got me demonetized in Google Ads.] TRL also signed the petition. The petition went viral and garnered national press coverage, such as PBS.

The plaintiffs claimed they were “participating in the joking of 14- and 15- year-olds, and the context was interracial good-humored and friendly bantering without any suggestion of demeaning or hurtful acts.” Even if that were true (which is hard to believe because this GenXer doesn’t find any of this remotely amusing), this is a heartbreaking situation.

First, I wonder if the high school freshmen do not fully understand what slavery means or why it’s never a joking matter. It’s easy for me as an outsider to heavily criticize young teens for making these choices, but it may not be fair to do so without knowing what they were taught and how they were socialized. Did the kids fail their parents, teachers and community, or did the teachers, parents, and community fail them?

Second, high school freshmen are notorious for making edgy choices and testing limits. It would be weird if they didn’t. Given their immaturity, we don’t treat or punish them as if they are adults.

Third, even if the teens didn’t intend to, their actions undoubtedly harmed their community. So what’s the best way to redress that harm? As an outsider, this looks like an ideal situation for restorative justice.

In light of all of those dynamics, what should the school district do about the petition? Should it treat this as a pedagogical/rehabilitative opportunity or a punitive one? What’s the best way to guide these high school freshmen towards becoming well-functioning members of our society?

This school chose the punitive route. It expelled Plaintiff A. It also suspended the other 3 commenters for the rest of the academic year (170 days) and required them to do 10 hours of DEI training. The plaintiffs sued the school district for the discipline. The court upheld it (without citing the Mahanoy case). The court says:

Defendants maintained Policies that prohibited discriminatory and racist behavior. It is undisputed that Plaintiffs created the Petition containing racially inflammatory statements. The record indicates that the Petition caused a disruption and fear among the students at PHS and was shared on social media…. It may be true that Plaintiffs, fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys, made a serious error in judgment and could have never envisioned this result. However, Plaintiffs presented no legal authority showing that the Court may revisit Defendants’ actions

In other words, the school had discretion about how to proceed. It’s the school’s prerogative to go the punishment route even if a pedagogical or rehabilitative route might have been more likely to lead to long-term pro-social outcomes.

Case citation: Plaintiff A v. Park Hill School District, 2023 WL 121991 (W.D. Mo. Jan. 6, 2023). The complaint.

Selected related blog posts:

* High School Students Can Be Disciplined for Racist Private Instagram Account–Chen v. Albany School District
* School Can Discipline Student for Impersonating Teacher Online, Even if Other Students Added the Worst Content–Kutchinski v. Freeland School District
School Can’t Discipline Student For Off-Campus Snapchat Messages–Mahanoy School District v. BL
High School Can’t Expel Student for Sharing Memes in Private Snapchat Conversation–JS v. Manheim Township School District
More Teenagers Mistakenly Think “Private” Chat Conversations Will Remain Private–People v. JP
Must Universities Shut Down Constitutionally Protected Speech Forums That Also Enable Student Harassment?
Twitter Isn’t Liable for Impersonation Account–Dehen v. Doe
Court Affirms Stalking and Harassment Conviction for Tagged Tweets–In re AJB
University Defeats Cyberbullying Lawsuit Related to Yik Yak–Feminist Majority v. UMW
Facebook Isn’t Liable for Fake User Account–Caraccioli v. Facebook
University Rejection of Students’ Marijuana-Themed T-Shirt Violates First Amendment–Gerlich v. Leath
Student Disciplined for Posting Threatening Mashup Video to Instagram–AN v. Upper Perkiomen School District
Tweeting Death Threats Isn’t Juvenile Delinquency–In re R.D.
University Cannot Discipline Student for Off-Campus Tweets
Qualified Immunity Bars Claims Based on Search of Student’s Facebook Account and Discipline for Private Messages
School District Wrongly Disciplined Student for a Two Word Tweet
First Amendment Bars School Discipline For Student’s Rap Video About School Coaches
Two Student Threat Cases Illustrate Gross Disparity in Treatment of Student Speech
Ill-Advised Student YouTube Video Leads to Conviction For Misusing Computerized Communication System–In re Kaleb K.
University May Be Liable for Improper Access to Student’s Facebook Photos – Rodriguez v. Widener Univ.
Crass and Offensive Tweets by Student May not Justify Suspension — Rosario v. Clark County School Dist.
Misguided Catfishing Scheme Leads to Discipline of College Students — Zimmerman v. Ball State
Another School Violated a Student’s First Amendment Rights by Disciplining Her For Facebook Posts — R.S. v. Minnewaska Area School Dist. No. 2149
Mortuary Student Can Be Disciplined for Facebook Posts–Tatro v. University of Minnesota
Suspension for Facebook/YouTube Rap Video Critical of High School Coach Does not Violate First Amendment – Bell v. Itawamba County School Board
Racy Teen Photos Posted to Facebook Are Constitutionally Protected Speech–TV v. Smith-Green
Mortuary Sciences College Student Disciplined for Threatening Facebook Posts–Tatro v. University of Minnesota
Student Loses First Amendment Fight To Call School Officials “Douchebags” After Four Years Of Litigation–Doninger v. Niehoff
Nursing School Can’t Expel Students for Posting Photo to Facebook–Byrnes v. Johnson County CC
Sending Politically Charged Emails Does Not Support Disturbing the Peace Conviction — State v. Drahota
Private Facebook Group’s Conversations Aren’t Defamatory–Finkel v. Dauber
Third Circuit Schizophrenia Over Student Discipline for Fake MySpace Profiles
Private High School Not Liable for Cyberbullying–DC v. Harvard-Westlake
Nursing Student’s Blog Post Doesn’t Support Expulsion–Yoder v. University of Louisville
Principal Loses Lawsuit Against Students and Parents Over Fake MySpace Page–Draker v. Schreiber
Court Upholds Student Suspension For YouTube Video of Teacher
Teenager Busted for Creating Fake “News” Story