ACLU: 3 Griffith girls expelled over Facebook jokes

2012-04-26T13:00:00Z 2012-06-12T11:37:10Z ACLU: 3 Griffith girls expelled over Facebook jokesBy Sarah Tompkins sarah.tompkins@nwi.com (219) 836-3780 nwitimes.com

HAMMOND | The American Civil Liberties Union is suing Griffith Public Schools after it expelled three eighth-graders for posting on Facebook about whom they would kill — a conversation the ACLU and parents say was sarcastic humor.

A federal civil suit filed Wednesday claims the school violated the teenagers' First Amendment rights to free speech.

"This was just 13- and 14-year-olds being 13- and 14-year-olds, engaging in a jesting conversation on their own time," said the girls' ACLU attorney, Gavin Rose. "And no reasonable person looking at the conversation would think these kids were bent on inflicting any actual harm."

According to the complaint, the Facebook discussion began after one of the girls posted a status update after school about cutting herself while shaving her legs.

"#2. I hate when I'm shaving my legs and I get he tinyest, microscopic, little (expletive)cut and it bleeds so much and makes me lose like 1/3 of the blood in my body - _ -" (sic) posted Girl 1, according to excerpts of the conversation obtained by The Times. The teenagers' names are withheld because they are minors.

That status was only visible to those in her "friends" circle, and a nearly two-hour virtual conversation of more than 70 posts followed.

Girl 2: thee only people that make me mad, are 7th graders who dont move out of thee way. & ugly people liike (name) (name) (name) (name) (name)...etc. (sic)

Girl 1: I would say kill all the ugly people at school than. But I don't wanna die.

And later:

Girl 3: i wanna kill people.

Girl 2: ii wiish yu wouldnt get caught, cos shiit, half thee school would be gone by now...

Girl 1: I need new best friends. All of mine are homicidal.

The ACLU describes the online conversation, which was sprinkled with emoticons like smiley faces, as "joking about whom they would kill, and how they would accomplish this feat, if they had the opportunity."

Rose said the names of the four or five students and a school staff member were not tagged in the post, which would have alerted them to the conversation. And the next day at school there were no disturbances, according to court documents.

After a classmate's mother showed school officials a copy of the Facebook exchange, they suspended the girls and later expelled them in February. The girls' mothers said that while they were not happy with what the girls were posting, they thought the school blew the situation out of proportion.

"It's not that different than if you come home from work and say, 'I hate my boss or could have killed that guy,'" said Bonnie Martin-Nolan, one of the girls' mothers. "You're not really going to do it but you need to vent that frustration somehow. ... I've had them over at my house several times. And while they are obnoxious teenage girls, that's all they are. Obnoxious teenage girls."

Tabitha Fortier said her daughter was never a problem child and she cried at her expulsion hearing, apologizing and asking to be given another chance. Fortier said she's missed out on opportunities for next year, like trying out for the dance team.

"None of these girls would hurt anybody," Fortier said.

And Holly DeYoung said her daughter was an honor roll student who never had been in trouble prior to the posts. She said while school officials expelled the girls and would pass them on to the next grade, the officials asked the girls back to take the ISTEP tests.

"They kick them out of school because they're such a threat, yet they invite them back to school to take the ISTEP test for two days," DeYoung said.

The mothers said they were concerned about the school's not being consistent in its discipline, saying they've seen other students posting similar things on Facebook who are not punished.

"If it's going to be like this for one student, they have to do it for every student," DeYoung said.

In a letter to one of the girls' parents, the expulsion examiner said the death remarks were considered to be harassing and intimidating, which violated the provisions in the student handbook, according to the school. The girls' actions created an unsafe environment for the students and staff of Griffith Middle School, according to the letter.

Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor, said threats are constitutionally punishable, but exaggeration, hyperbole and jokes are protected speech.

The Times called and emailed Griffith Superintendent Peter Morikis, who did not respond to requests for comment. A school official directed The Times to the school's attorney, Rhett Tauber. He did not return calls and an email Wednesday seeking comment.

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