The fallout from an act of vandalism at McDowell High School has sparked debate on whether or not students’ First Amendment rights were violated.
Several students received short-term suspensions after posting words of encouragement and support on classmate Alex Mayes’ Facebook wall.
Last week, Mayes and a friend spray painted phallic symbols on several different areas at McDowell High School, including Titan rock.
On Wednesday, both Mayes’ and his associate were questioned and then arrested. It was after his arrest that students began posting comments about the act and forwarding pictures of the rock.
Principal Ben Talbert was out of town when the incident occurred and he said he believed at the time that suspensions were the only way to protect the school.
“The decision was made because I felt like we were in a position of being very vulnerable,” Talbert said Monday. “To glorify a guy for doing this we thought created a negative environment. I’m just amazed that kids supported him. Many of the parents I’ve spoken to are amazed their kids supported this.”
Ken Paulson, president/chief executive at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., said this incident is one of many dealing with social media and a student’s First Amendment right to free speech.
“This is an emerging area of the law,” Paulson said in a telephone interview Monday. “The question of whether public schools can discipline students for free expression outside of the classroom is still being refined. It’s still being addressed by the courts in surprisingly different ways. Students have First Amendment rights. Courts have different ways of applying them when dealing with a school. The test is always whether the speech substantially disrupts school operations.”
Disruption was the main reason why Talbert chose to give five students short-term suspension.
“We thought this kind of activity was disruptive,” he said. “It was kind of like having a fight break out and having students cheer the participants on.”
Logan Singer, a junior at McDowell High, was one of the five students who received a short-term suspension. The teen said he understands where administrators were coming from, but he believes his suspension was unfair since he posted a photo of the vandalized rock on Facebook before school.
“I sent a picture of it to Facebook saying “No f--- way, best senior prank ever,” said Singer. “I do feel like my First Amendment rights were violated. Them going on my Facebook invaded my privacy.”
Other students who received short-term suspensions were not available for comment as of deadline on Monday.
Administrators’ efforts to control the situation have been thwarted by students who continue to deface the school’s rock, Talbert said.
“This morning the rock had to be painted over again,” he said Monday. “Ever since this incident occurred we’ve had multiple things spray painted in support of Alex.”
Over the weekend, Talbert got in touch with the parents of almost every student who received suspension. After talking to them, it was decided that students would return to school on Monday and that the suspensions would be reversed.
“This weekend I personally talked with all but one student’s parents,” Talbert said. “All the kids have been very apologetic and have tried to make things right. I just want to get beyond this.”
By the end of the school day on Monday, school administrators decided the half day that students missed on Thursday would be removed from each student’s record.