Minn. Student’s Tweet About Kissing Teacher Leads to Suspension, Lawsuit

By Benjamin Herold — August 13, 2015 3 min read
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A Minnesota high school student will be allowed to proceed with a lawsuit against school district administrators who suspended him over a two-word tweet about kissing a teacher, the Star Tribune reports.

The student, Reid Sagehorn, was an honor student and captain of the football and basketball teams at Rogers High in the 12,500-student Elk River Area district, according to the paper.

In January 2014, Sagehorn, using his personal Twitter account, sent a message reading “Actually, yeah” in response to an online question about whether he had “made out” with a 28-year old teacher at the school. The student has since said the tweet was sent in jest.

District administrators “suspended Sagehorn for five days, then extended it to 10 days, and then to nearly two months,” according to the Star Tribune. He reportedly withdrew from the school and enrolled elsewhere to avoid expulsion.

Sagehorn has sued Elk River Superintendent Mark Bezek and other administrators in the district. The district had moved to have the case thrown out, but a judge rejected its motion and will allow the suit to proceed.

“This really was a missed teaching opportunity for the district,” said Bradley Shear, a social media and digital privacy lawyer based in Bethesda, Md., who is not involved in the case.

“I think the [district] is going to have significant legal liability, because the student did have damages,” Shear said.

A number of recent legal cases involve similar issues.

In 2014, New Jersey’s 950-student Sterling High School district agreed to revise its student handbook and social media policies and pay $9,000 in legal fees after being sued by the family of a 17-year old student who was suspended in part for using vulgarity to describe her principal on Twitter.

As part of a settlement reached in the case, the district agreed to inform students that “the administration may be monitoring student discussions on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media outlets and may seek to impose penalties in accordance with the student code of conduct if such discussions cause a substantial disruption at the school.”

The Sterling High district also agreed to purge its files of all records of the student’s involvement in the case, and to let the student attend her senior prom and senior class trip, from which she had previously been banned.

And in an opinion filed in 2010 in response to a lawsuit filed by a student who was suspended after creating a satirical MySpace profile of his principal, the U.S. Appeals Court found that “the First Amendment prohibits the school from reaching beyond the schoolyard to impose what might otherwise be appropriate discipline.”

“The bottom line is that the First Amendment still applies” on social media, Shear said. Exceptions come when student expression causes “substantial disruption” at the school—for example, a bomb threat.

Shear also cautioned against districts monitoring students’ public social media accounts, describing the practice as a slippery—and potentially expensive—slope. For example, he said, it can be challenging to link social media accounts to specific users without student verification, and districts open themselves up to potential liability if they commit to monitoring student social media and end up missing communications that may have warned of bullying or threats.

Shear described such monitoring efforts as “an absolute waste of taxpayer dollars.”

In February, Education Week reported on districts wrestling with whether and how to access students’ social-media passwords.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.