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Federal Appeals Court Rules Against High School Cyberbully

A federal appeals court has refused to order the reinstatement of a student suspended for cyber bullying. Kara Kowalski was a senior at Musselman High School in West Virginia when she launched her vicious attack against a classmate. Kara’s weapon of destruction was a personalized MySpace page entitled “S.A.S.H.”

cyber%20bully.jpgAt subsequent court hearings, Kara stated that S.A.S.H was an acronym for “Students Against Sluts Herpes.” She went on to allege that another student started a false rumor that the title really represented “Students Against Shay’s Herpes.”

Nonetheless, numerous youth immediately posted images of Shay on S.A.S.H. All of the intentionally altered pictures suggested that Shay had a venereal disease. Shay suffered severe harassment and ostracism as a direct and proximate cause thereof.

When Shay’s parents complained to authorities about this offensive content, school administrator deemed that S.A.S.H. was indeed a “hate website.” Official school policy prohibits cyber bullying. Accordingly, Kara received a five-day disciplinary suspension.

The ensuing litigation posited that this punishment violated Kara’s constitutional rights to due process and free speech.

The court rejected those claims, however. The sole purpose of S.A.S.H. as a forum for defamatory publication and derogatory depictions seems to have been the underlying rationale.

Thus, the Fourth Circuit jurists ruled that school officials did not usurp their legal authority by suspending Kara. Judge Paul V. Neimeyer penned the majority view. In it, he opined that school officials acted appropriately by taking Kara’s callous disregard for a fellow student very seriously.

In addition to being suspended, Kara was prohibited from crowning her successor to the “Queen of Charm” throne. She also lost a cheerleading post.

Ironically, Kara also claimed to have suffered severe depression and social isolation as collateral consequences. The court was apathetic to those assertions, however.

This is a great example of school authorities doing the right thing for the right reasons.

The last paragraph of the Court’s decision says it best: “Rather than respond constructively to the school’s efforts to bring order and provide a lesson following the incident, Kowalski has rejected those efforts and sued school authorities for damages and other relief. Regretfully, she yet fails to see that such harassment and bullying is inappropriate and hurtful and that it must be taken seriously by school administrators in order to preserve an appropriate pedagogical environment. Indeed, school administrators are becoming increasingly alarmed by the phenomenon, and the events in this case are but one example of such bullying and school administrators’ efforts to contain it. Suffice it to hold here that, where such speech has a sufficient nexus with the school, the Constitution is not written to hinder school administrators’ good faith efforts to address the problem.”

The entire decision may be viewed HERE.

If you are a California school administrator with a question about student/teacher safety, special education, accommodations, student rights, free speech or discipline, or school employment law, feel free to call attorney Richard Oppenheim at 818-461-8500. There is never a charge for an initial consultation and we can help you choose the best direction to resolve any school district issue.