A school district will pay $30,000 to one of its students who was suspended for making fun of his band teacher on the internet, according to the Associated Press (AP). In return, the student will drop his half-a-million-dollar lawsuit against the district for the 10-day suspension, AP reported.
Superintendent Beverly Reep of the Westlake school district in suburban Cleveland was ordered in March by a federal judge to reinstate16-year-old Sean O’Brien. O’Brien had been suspended for using his home computer to create a web site disparaging a band teacher.
The superintendent said the district suspended O’Brien for violating a policy forbidding students from showing disrespect to employees. A federal court told the school district to stop trying to restrict O’Brien’s right to free expression.
Superintendent Reep said school officials suspended O’Brien because they thought his web site violated a policy that forbids students from demonstrating “physical, written or verbal disrespect/threat” to employees.
“We felt there was harm done here,” Reep said on March 19. “This is cyberspace, and it’s the first time we’ve dealt with something like this.”
The high school junior doesn’t like his high school band teacher. So the youngster decided to vent his frustrations on the internet. The teen-age baritone horn player built a web site through his home computer dedicated to his problems with teacher Raymond Walczuk. On the web site, the boy called Walczuk “an overweight middle-aged man who doesn’t like to get haircuts” and accused the teacher of favoring some students over others.
O’Brien told a couple of buddies about the site, word spread through Westlake High School, and trouble followed.
While awaiting a full hearing in court, O’Brien returned to school on March 19. It was also his first day back in Walczuk’s class.
“It was pretty much as I expected,” O’Brien said of his return. “It seemed like a normal day at school. There was no conflict with Mr. Walczuk. I went to band class ‹ we did band things, like practicing music.’
The day before, Senior U.S. District Judge John M. Manos had also ordered Westlake school district officials not to restrict what the teen-ager puts on a web site set up through his own computer.
Attorneys for O’Brien and Chris Link, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said they believe the case is the first of its kind regarding a student’s free-speech rights on the internet.
O’Brien sued the Westlake school board and five district officials, claiming his First Amendment rights were violated. The lawsuit asks for $550,000 in damages.
“We say the situation is analogous to Sean talking to his friends in a coffee shop,” said Kenneth Myers, an attorney for O’Brien. “Why can’t he say something critical of the band teacher? He’s on his own time, he’s on his own turf.”
O’Brien’s web site was on the internet for about three weeks in February and early March, until the student closed it down.
On it, O’Brien posted a yearbook photo of Walczuk along with the teacher’s address and home telephone number. The teen-ager also wrote about several confrontations he had with Walczuk during the school year.
“He likes to involve himself in everything you do, demands that band be your No. 1 priority, and favors people,” the student wrote. “He often thinks that problems are caused by a certain student and/or group of students and no one else.”
Walczuk did not return reporters telephone messages.
Superintendent Reep said high school administrators’ recommended expelling O’Brien but that she decided to suspend him for 10 days. O’Brien served eight days of his suspension before Manos’ order allowed him to return to Westlake.
The teen-ager closed down his web site after his March 6 suspension, but the judge’s order allows him to restore it. At press time, O’Brien said he didn’t yet know if he would reopen the site.