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Expulsion lawsuit claims denied by school board

“… expelling him is sending a message to all kids in the school that you better not mention school shootings ever, because if you do, you could be expelled.It teaches kids not to be thoughtful and think and communicate with one another so they can find solutions to these things in the future.” — Bill Noelker, attorney for expelled student

 

On Feb. 16 — two days after the Parkland, Florida, school shooting that left 17 dead —Boyle County High School staff members had to deal with a problem: Students reported to them they had seen what another student was writing on his computer, and it was “troubling.”

They seized the student’s laptop. After reading what he had written about school shootings, they called Principal Mark Wade, who decided to suspend the student. That suspension grew longer, then turned into an expulsion from the school for “threats of violence.”

Those are facts both the student and the school district agree on, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the student and an answer to the suit filed Tuesday by the Boyle County Board of Education. But they don’t agree on much else.

The lawsuit, filed by Danville attorney Bill Noelker, alleges the school district overreacted — the 11th-grade student’s writings were never meant to be seen by anyone else; there was never a threat made; and the board, blinded by the fear of a school shooting, denied the student his constitutional rights during the expulsion process. The school board’s answer, filed by Dana Collins with Louisville-based law firm Middleton Reutlinger, denies all of those allegations.

The lawsuit claims the expulsion was made despite evidence showing the student wasn’t a threat; and that the expulsion has harmed his constitutional right to a good education.

In one of its defenses, the school board denies the student “suffered the injuries as alleged in his complaint. However, in the event he has suffered such injuries, his injuries and damages were caused in whole or in part by his own conduct or the conduct or actions of third parties.”

Noelker said Thursday the answer is a fairly “standard” one; nothing in it surprised him.

The suit asks for an order to re-enroll the student in school, and a temporary injunction allowing the student to re-enroll in school while the lawsuit is pending. It also asks for “sealing and expungement of all discipline records” related to the case, “compensatory educational services to place (the student) in the same position he would have been if not for illegal exclusion from school services,” attorney’s fees and any other justifiable relief.

Whether the student’s writings were a threat or not is “the whole crux of the issue,” Noelker said. “… The most glaring issue in this case is that there was not one person threatened, there was no threat made to the school, there was no threat made to any staff or students.”

Noelker said his client is “a very intelligent young man who is involved in drama and a lot of other things and he writes quite a bit.”

The student had been writing about school shootings because it was “one of his ways of … dealing with what you can imagine is a very stressful time for all these high school students,” he said. “… I would call it creative writing. It’s a very creative kind of way to write about a particular topic. But it’s also open to interpretation. It’s the type of writing that unless you talk to the author, you might not understand where he was coming from.”

Noelker said what the student wrote was discovered by other students “looking over (his) shoulder” while he was writing on his laptop at school. Those students then went to school administrators about what they saw instead of asking him what the writing was.

Noelker said the school district had a mental health professional at Sunrise Children’s Services evaluate his client and that professional determined “he’s not a threat to the Boyle County Schools.”

“They chose not to listen to this person who they hired to interview this kid. That’s kind of telling to me,” he said. “You’ve got your own mental health professional who’s saying, ‘Look, he’s not a threat.’”

The lawsuit alleges “the (school board’s) own mental health witness testified that (the student) was not a threat.” The school board’s answer denies that allegation.

Noelker said a counselor at the high school disagreed with the professional from Sunrise and testified at the expulsion hearing that the writings were threatening.

“The reasons they gave for expelling him are not supported by the evidence,” he said. “… Post-Parkland shooting, the administration was on hyper-alert for any kind of perceived threat and this young man happened to be writing about school shootings … We believe it’s just a knee-jerk reaction to a really horrific thing that’s going on in this country.”

Noelker said he doesn’t have permission to release any of the student’s writings to the public, in part to continue protecting the student’s anonymity.

“It’s going to be one of those things where I think when he is an adult and can make that decision for himself, he probably would tell me to go ahead and release them,” he said. “… I think there will come a time where they come out. I hope they do, because I think it would be important for this community to have a discussion about what it means to have these school-age kids have these conversations in school.”

Noelker said he believes allowing students to talk about and deal with the emotions created by the threat of school shootings can help stop the cycle of violence. The Boyle school board is essentially preventing whatever solutions might come out of such honest conversations, he said.

“What they’re doing by expelling him is sending a message to all kids in the school that you better not mention school shootings ever, because if you do, you could be expelled,” he said. “It teaches kids not to be thoughtful and think and communicate with one another so they can find solutions to these things in the future.”