Barrington Middle School student “E. Doe” (as he is designated in court papers) is, by his principal’s own account, a “great boy,” “respectful,” and had never been a disciplinary problem. So why, then, have the principal and the school committee spent a year and a half in a relentless battle, all at taxpayer expense, to overturn a three-day suspension against him that Doe successfully challenged as unlawful? Why would the school committee go so far as to actually sue Doe in court and (until the school committee claimed it was never their intent) seek an award of attorneys’ fees against him? And why embroil an innocent student in a court fight after three separate authorities at the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE) unanimously agreed that the suspension infringed on Doe’s rights and violated a law enacted to stem unnecessary out-of-school suspensions?

Only one answer makes sense: the school district can’t stand the idea of a young student successfully calling them out for violating his rights, and they are intent – at no matter what cost to the taxpayer – on trying to prove him wrong or, at the very least, intimidating any other student from challenging disciplinary actions by school administrators. In short, the school district is just being a bully.

Here are the facts: One day in the school cafeteria, Doe and six other students were discussing the then-recent Parkland, Florida school shooting. A student overheard some of the conversation and reported it to their parents, who then contacted the police department, claiming that some boys – though not Doe – had been talking “about bombs and shooting up the school.” After those students mentioned Doe’s participation in the conversation, police interviewed him that night, and then again at school the next day (without notifying his parents of the second interrogation). The police quickly concluded there was no threat, but this determination did not stop the school principal from issuing three-day suspensions to Doe and three of the other students for “Threats/Intimidation.”

Doe appealed the suspension, and a RIDE hearing officer, the Commissioner of Education, and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education all separately agreed that the school district had presented no evidence that Doe had been disruptive, a general prerequisite for issuing an out-of-school suspension. The school district’s response to those decisions was to sue RIDE and the student in Superior Court last month in an effort to get the suspension reinstated, and to seek an award of fees for that effort.

After the school district was called to task by the ACLU for taking Doe to court, the superintendent issued a three-page statement in an attempt to justify this vendetta against the student. A close reading of the statement only demonstrates how empty the district’s concerns are. It notes that Doe “participated in a conversation” that discussed school shootings, but in a classic case of guilt by association, nothing in the statement undermines the point that the ACLU attorney for Doe made in the appeal:

"The School Department could not produce a single piece of evidence during the lengthy disciplinary appeal hearing of [Doe], showing that he had made a     threatening or intimidating statement. Likewise, they could not produce a single piece of evidence that anything he said made anyone who overheard feel threatened or intimidated."

In fact, the superintendent acknowledges that Doe was not disruptive in any way. Instead, he claims that the conversation Doe participated in “caused a powerful – and undeniably – material and substantial disruption to the school.”  But the “disruption” – a phalanx of police officers at the school the next morning – was entirely the school’s own doing, since the police had already decided there was no threat. 

Instead, the school district appears to claim that it had an obligation to file the lawsuit in order to overturn what it sees as a terrible precedent that will straitjacket school officials trying to protect their students.  There’s just one major problem with that justification: perhaps anticipating such a knee-jerk argument, the Council of Elementary and Secondary Education, in upholding the reversal of Doe’s suspension, explicitly noted “the limited precedential value” of its decision since it hinged so much on the very specific facts of what happened. Sorry, Barrington, try again.

Bizarrely, the superintendent’s letter even goes on to suggest that the school committee has some sort of constitutional right to punish Doe – notwithstanding the limits that state law imposes on school districts in issuing suspensions. It thus seems that the school district, in addition to tormenting Doe, wants to use his case to undermine an important state law designed to counteract the detrimental overuse of out-of-school suspensions.

Putting this young student and his family through the gauntlet for more than a year and a half is shameful and scandalous. Whatever lesson the school district thinks it is teaching by pursuing this matter with such feverish and misplaced intensity, the one it will likely not take credit for is showing that government officials can sometimes be the biggest bullies of all.

You can find more information about the lawsuit here.