SALINE, Mich. – Four Saline High School students suspended for using racist emojis and derogatory terms on Snapchat are suing the school district, alleging their free speech rights were violated.
The federal lawsuit alleges because the messages in question happened off school property, outside of school hours or events and on personal devices, the actions taken against the students violate their rights to free speech protection and violated school policies and procedures.
"This case boils down to a simple question: When a child misbehaves at home, who disciplines — the local public school or the parent? If a child gets stopped for drunk driving on a Saturday night, does the school have the right to expel that student? The answer is obvious. No," said attorney David Kallman in a news release. "The conversation of these children had nothing to do with the school. It has no authority to discipline students for out of school misbehavior."
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Detroit, lists Saline Area Schools, Saline Area Schools Board of Education and Superintendent Scot Graden, among others as defendants.
A legal representative for the school district could not immediately be reached for comment.
The lawsuit argues that the school and superintendent violated policy by punishing the students for behavior that took place off-campus, not at a school-sponsored event and not on district devices.
The district and the superintendent "acted outside the scope of their authority and violated (the students) rights by suspending all four of them and recommending the expulsion of two of them for the expression contained in the text messages," according to the lawsuit.
Two of the suspended students returned to school Feb. 10, while the other two remain suspended and were recently notified of the school's recommendation for expulsion, according to the lawsuit.
Stop racism by saying the 'n' word
Here is how the events played out, as described by the lawsuit:
Two youths, one white and one African-American, created the Snapchat group message Jan. 26. The four students, who later were suspended, were added to the group. The two original members of the group message used offensive language and terminology as well as memes containing the same language and understood it to be a joke.
One of the African-American students in the conversation jokingly suggested that everyone in the group message should say the "N" word at the same time to "stop racism." Many of the group members did so accordingly.
After the African-American students left the messages, erasing earlier notes, another African-American child logged on and saw the messages and recorded a video of the Snapchats and shared the messages to social media.
There was no intent on behalf of the students to make the messages public, according to the lawsuit.
One of the involved students later messaged the African-American student to clarify the messages were meant as a joke and were just a misunderstanding, to which the African-American child responded he knew but they "can't (expletive) around like that at all."
The suit alleges the four students were suspended without written notice and without a notice of their rights to due process. One of the involved students was questioned by a police officer and told he was under criminal investigation on Jan. 27 without notifying the student of his legal rights or notifying his parents.
None of the African-American students in the original group messages were disciplined, according to the lawsuit.
Following the public statements from the district and meetings, the suit alleges the students were "alienated and stigmatized" from classmates and the general community.
The lawsuit argues the students have suffered academically and states the district should reinstate the students, expunge their record and award the students damages and coverage of legal fees incurred.
Catapulted to the national spotlight
Saline Area Schools responded swiftly to the release of the messages with a letter from Superintendent Scot Graden on Jan. 27 and announced the district investigated the incident and deemed it an act of racism harmful to the students.
In a meeting on diversity and inclusion in the days following the messages in question, a parent shared that his son dealt with racist remarks while at the school, including being called "taco," "enchilada" and "nacho."
In response to Adrian Iraola, the parent, another parent, who identified himself as Tom Burtell, asked, "Then why didn't you stay in Mexico?"
The racist remark launched Saline into the national spotlight. Students, families and Saline community members gathered Feb. 5 for a rally for diversity and inclusion, which drew nearly 250 people.
Follow Meredith Spelbring on Twitter: @mere0415.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan students suspended over racist Snapchat sue school district