The 2017 edition of the Wall High School yearbook had something missing — the slogan “TRUMP Make America Great Again!” was edited out of at least one student’s T-shirt. Grant Berardo wore the Trump shirt on photo day for his junior class picture. But when the yearbook came out, the slogan was not there. Berardo’s dark-colored T-shirt was blank.
The former yearbook adviser, Susan Parsons, was blamed for the change and put on paid leave when Berardo and his family accused her of censoring him.
Now, Parsons is saying it was the school that asked her to do so and that she opposed the change. In fact, she said, she voted for Trump in the 2016 election.
A secretary at Wall High School in central New Jersey told Parsons, the yearbook adviser, the student’s shirt “has to go,” and the district forbade Parsons from telling news reporters she had opposed the edit, Parsons claims in a lawsuit filed Monday.
“The motivating reason for this lawsuit is so that she has the ability to get her story out to the world,” Parsons’s attorney, Christopher J. Eibeler, told The Washington Post.
Parsons, a technology teacher who has been with Wall High School since 2003, says she received a death threat, got other harassing messages and heard people outside her home soon after the incident became public. She was denied her annual raise after the district’s investigation into the incident and, though she still teaches at the school, no longer oversees the yearbook staff, the lawsuit says.
“This is ‘hate mail,' ” read an anonymous letter to Parsons, according to the lawsuit. “You deserve it. Deal with it.”
Parsons’s legal action, first reported by NJ.com, is the latest update to one of many recent incidents where school districts have drawn public ire for allegedly censoring political or controversial messages.
An Oregon high school student got a $25,000 settlement last year after he claimed he was punished for wearing a shirt that supported Trump’s proposed border wall. In Minnesota, a student said the words “Deport racists” were removed from a photo of his shirt before his high school tweeted it.
Berardo’s father previously told The Post the 2016 presidential contest was the first election his son had shown interest in.
“His question was, ‘Is it okay? Did someone do something here that they shouldn’t have done?' ” Joseph Berardo said in 2017. “That’s why I’m pursuing it.”
District Superintendent Cheryl Dyer said Tuesday that she investigated the photo’s censorship soon after it happened and that the district was considering its legal options.
“I’m confident that when the full facts come to light, all of the actions of this office and the Board of Education will be found to be wholly appropriate,” Dyer said in an emailed statement.
Two other students, Wyatt and Montana Dobrovich-Fago, had also complained that their references to Trump were removed from the yearbook. A student on the yearbook staff had mistakenly left out a quote attributed to Trump, the lawsuit says, and the district’s outside photographer had cropped a Trump logo out of a photo.
Trump waded into the controversy in 2017 to thank Wyatt and Montana for publicizing the omissions.
“Thank you Wyatt and Montana — two young Americans who aren’t afraid to stand up for what they believe in. Our movement to #MAGA is working because of great people like you!” Trump wrote on Facebook. His campaign sent the students a letter and “Make America Great Again” memorabilia.
Wall High School’s administration signs off on all pages of the yearbook every year, the lawsuit says, and it directed Parsons to make several changes in 2017. Parsons claims she pushed back on several edit requests and told the administration the “yearbook should reflect reality.”
Superintendent Dyer told the public the district’s dress code does not ban political speech, the lawsuit says, and that the school had been unaware of the edits. Dyer added that the district does not condone censorship, according to the lawsuit.
The district’s media policy bans teachers from talking to reporters without the superintendent’s consent. Parsons says in the lawsuit she was reprimanded when she was quoted by the New York Post as saying “We have never made any action against any political party.”
Dyer wrote in a letter to parents in 2017 that the yearbooks would be corrected and reissued.
Parsons’s lawsuit says the school district’s media policy violates her First Amendment rights and asks that it be found unconstitutional so she can speak publicly.
“If and when she’s able to speak to the media,” Eibeler said, “she intends to.”