A Florida high school student is alleging school officials violated her rights when they banned her from participating in an anti-bullying observance and then suspended her from school.
In April of last year, DeSoto County school student Amber Hatcher, then 15, was making plans to participate in the National Day of Silence. The event is a student-led day sponsored by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) that encourages students across the country to remain silent in order to call attention to the silencing effect anti-LGBT bullying — and, indeed, all bullying — has on kids.
Hatcher claims she asked for permission from her principal, Mrs. Shannon Fusco, nearly a month in advance of the event. She also provided information from GLSEN and Lambda Legal about students’ rights to participate in such actions per First Amendment protections, and the limits to those rights (you do not have a right to remain silent while in class, for instance, and this is why discussing the event with faculty members is advised before the day itself).
Hatcher asserts that Principal Fusco then threatened her with what the suit terms “ramifications” if she attempted to observe the Day of Silence.
Hatcher went over Fusco’s head to appeal to the DeSoto County School Superintendent, Adrian Cline. The superintendent repeatedly refused to meet with Hatcher. He then allegedly directed Principal Fusco to tell Hatcher her request was “disapproved” [sic] because, he claimed, allowing student participation in the Day of Silence was not allowed — this despite Hatcher having offered evidence that legal precedent was clearly on her side.
Principal Fusco is then said to have repeatedly told Hatcher that she would be barred from participating in the event, and that there “would be consequences” should she make an attempt to observe the Day of Silence. The suit even alleges that Fusco called Hatcher’s parents and suggested Hatcher be kept home from school on that day.
In due course, Lambda Legal got involved and on April 19, 2012, the suit details that Lambda Legal sent a letter to both the principal and superintendent in which it outlined the legal grounds that make it clear Hatcher, and indeed any student, has a right to observe the Day of Silence. The letter also warned that barring Hatcher from participating could be grounds for a lawsuit.
The suit claims the letter was ignored.
On April 20, 2012, the National Day of Silence, Amber came to school wearing a red T-shirt with the message “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh.” As is standard on the Day of Silence, she communicated by dry-erase board with peers and teachers. She was soon called into the dean’s office, whereby she was informed she had been suspended from school for the day.
In the lawsuit, Hatcher v. DeSoto County Board of Education, et al. filed on February 23 against DeSoto County Board of Education, Lambda Legal argues the high school violated Hatcher’s First Amendment rights.
The suit requests a court order to ensure that Hatcher and other DeSoto County High School students are able to observe this year’s Day of Silence on April 19, 2013, without interference.
Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Beth Littrell is quoted as saying, “Amber was respectfully and peacefully calling attention to a real problem: LGBT students at DeSoto County High School feel unwelcome and unsafe. The school should be working to help support LGBT students rather than punishing students who are standing up against bullying. By threatening, censoring and punishing Amber for her efforts to simply raise awareness, school officials disregarded her rights as well as the Constitution.”
The school is yet to comment on the suit.
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