Court Backs Discipline of Student Over Violent Essay

By Mark Walsh — August 18, 2011 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld the brief suspension of a middle school student who wrote a violent essay for a class assignment, saying that school administrators must have latitude to “distinguish empty boasts from serious threats.”

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, also unanimously upheld the dismissal of a civil rights claim over the school principal’s decision to report the boy’s parents to state child-welfare authorities. The principal believed the parents were not sufficiently concerned about the boy’s record of misbehavior at school and his emotional well-being.

The ruling came in the case of a student at Warwick Valley Middle School in Warwick, N.Y., who in 2007 wrote an essay about having only 24 hours to live that describes the student getting drunk, taking drugs, taking cyanide, and shooting himself in the head in front of his friends. The boy’s teacher shared the essay with the principal, who sequestered the student in in-school suspension for an afternoon while he evaluated whether the essay represented a threat, court papers say.

The principal concluded that the essay was not a threat and the boy was sent home without further discipline. But after a meeting with the boy’s parents, the principal reported them to the state Department of Child and Family Services out of a concern that they were not taking their son’s problems seriously. The state agency required the boy to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, but it later concluded the principal’s fears were unfounded.

The parents sued the principal and the school district. They alleged that their son’s in-school suspension was retaliation for speech protected by the First Amendment. And they argued that the principal’s report to the state child-welfare agency violated their 14th Amendment right to substantive due process of law.

A federal district court dismissed both claims. In its Aug. 17 decision in Cox v. Warwick Valley Central School District, the 2nd Circuit panel upheld the dismissal of the parents’ suit.

“A school administrator must be able to react to ambiguous student speech by temporarily removing the student from potential danger (to himself and others) until it can be determined whether the speech represents a real threat to school safety and student learning,” the 2nd Circuit court said. “Without more, the temporary removal of a student from regular school activities in response to speech exhibiting violent, disruptive, lewd, or otherwise harmful ideations is not an adverse action for purposes of the First Amendment absent a clear showing of intent to chill speech or punish it.”

The court said the principal’s call to Child and Family Services did not result in a loss of the parents’ custody of their son, and there was no evidence that the principal acted maliciously.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.