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Can high school students really be suspended for posting typical criticism of school officials on the Internet?
The principal of Greenwood High School thinks so. Now, it's a federal case.
The principal, Jerry Efurd, suspended four students, all seniors, on Aug. 24 for comments - and, in one case, a comic strip - they'd posted on private web sites, using their home computers after school hours.
The parents of two boys filed for an injunction, and a hearing on Friday, Sept. 3 lasted more than six hours. U.S. Magistrate Judge Beverly Stipes-Jones decided to give both sides until Sept. 15 to file motions summarizing their case.
"I am surprised," Sam Sexton, attorney for both boys, said Friday afternoon. "I cannot believe anybody would even think this is a close issue."
The comments were typical high-school complaints: One student, Adam Salverson, said that after going to school four times to see a counselor who was never there, he wanted to "shove my schedule up [the counselor's] ass."
Another, Ryan Kuhl, kept an online journal called "F_CK Greenwood." He linked to and praised the comic strip drawn by a third student, Justin Neal, but the worst thing he appears to have said about the school was to call it "the ol' hell-hole" and say that orientation was "dreadfully boring to the point of suicide."
As for Neal, he posted three installments of a comic strip called "Greentree" on his web site. The third is the one that got him in trouble. It depicts Efurd as a human intercom, pushed around on a cart by a red Sasquatch-like creature meant to represent Vice Principal Jim Garvey. Efurd asks an audience of students - crudely drawn gray circles - if they're excited to be back at school. One raises his hand. The final pane shows the Sasquatch holding a smoking gun, and two of the gray circles have bullet holes in them. "Anyone else?" the intercom asks.
Efurd claimed some of the comments had to be taken as threats (against whom, he didn't say), and that the web sites "substantially" disrupted school - although administrators apparently only found out about them only when a parent called to complain and a former student forwarded the critical comments hoping school officials would use them to make constructive changes.
Neal and Kuhl said Garvey called them and a third student out of class on the morning of Aug. 24 and told them they were in trouble over their web sites. They said Garvey said the police and state prosecutor had been called, and that if anyone in another state had seen the web sites, it would involve a federal crime as well. He told them they should cooperate.
"'Plea bargain' were his words," Neal said.
Garvey and Efurd questioned each student separately for 30 to 45 minutes, the boys said, and then called their parents to come pick them up. They were told they'd been suspended until further notice, and that they wouldn't be able to come back to school until they took their web sites down. The suspensions mean work that can't be made up, and a permanent ban from extracurricular activities.
All three students - the fourth, a female senior, couldn't be reached for comment - said they believed Garvey and Efurd were violating their free speech rights by punishing them for comments made outside the school.
But it was Neal's mother, Laura Neal, who first decided to fight back.
"When we were in the office getting this explained to us, they made it seem like this had been going on for quite some time, and that Justin had deliberately created this mayhem and dissension they'd been talking about," she said.
Then Justin showed his parents the comic strips.
"It is not as it was presented to us," she said.
Laura Neal called attorney Sexton that afternoon; he assured her there was no way the school would actually suspend Justin, because they had no authority over his actions outside of school. But at a meeting the next morning, Efurd did just that: Justin was suspended for three full days, and ordered to take down his comic strip.
Laura Neal again called Sexton, who sent a letter to the school demanding they rescind the suspension and suggesting they talk to an attorney themselves. They didn't respond, and late that afternoon Sexton filed a motion in federal court for an injunction against the school. Ryan Kuhl's parents later had Sexton file a similar motion on his behalf, but not before they had him delete his web site.
The court wasn't able to schedule a hearing immediately, so Justin and Ryan both served out their suspensions with the other two students.
Greenwood High is a school of about 725 students in a town 10 miles south of Fort Smith. Over the summer, several students began keeping online diaries on a web site called xanga.com. Ryan started his on Aug. 9.
"It was created to voice my opinions about the school and the town," he said.
Ryan said at first his parents, who didn't know about his weblog, were shocked at the language school officials told them he used.
"Then I came home and showed them the site, that's when they became less mad at me, and more mad at the school," he said. "They saw the truth of what was going on."
The school officials, of course, see the case differently. Efurd couldn't be reached for comment before press time, but Garvey referred questions to the district's assistant superintendent, who declined to comment.
The district's lawyer, Mitch Llewellyn, said Arkansas "has long recognized that school boards can deal with students' off-campus behavior." A case from 1909 upheld a school's punishment of a student who'd gotten drunk outside of school, he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court, on the other hand, has ruled more than once that students' free speech rights are fully protected outside of school.
But Llewellyn said the argument that the students' web sites disrupted school - and targeted specific administrators - makes this case an exception.
"You can't defame people and call it free speech," he said. And at least one parent called the school concerned about the safety of his child, Llewellyn said.
"There are no federal cases involving facts like this," Llewellyn said. "None say the school district doesn't have authority to regulate this."
Greenwood School Board Vice President James Cox, who is also an attorney, declined to comment on the case last week.
"All I have had a chance to do is review the complaints and our policy," he said. "I have not seen the web sites."
Neal, an experienced debater and honor student, said he's well aware of the First Amendment issues of his case and is confident the school made "a bad decision."
Both boys' lawsuits ask that they be allowed to make up the work they missed, and that their records be wiped clean of any mention of the suspensions. Salverson, one of the other suspended students, said he hopes that he'll benefit as well if the court rules in their favor.
Sexton said he thinks the school officials are misunderstanding a court's ruling two years ago in a case out of Pulaski County. In that case, a student wrote a letter outside of school detailing how he would rape and murder his ex-girlfriend. He didn't send her the letter, but another student found it at the boy's house and gave it to her at school. The girl, not surprisingly, was upset about the letter, and a U.S. appellate court, on a 5-4 vote, upheld the school's punishment of the boy because the letter constituted a real threat to the girl and disrupted school.
Justin Neal, however, doesn't buy school administrators' claim that the students' web sites affected school.
"I've talked to people who were at school, and they didn't notice any kind of disruption," he said.