Four California high school students who were suspended for “liking” and commenting on racist Instagram posts have filed a federal lawsuit alleging administrators paraded them through the school and allowed their classmates to berate them as part of a “healing” exercise.
The plaintiffs were among more than a dozen students at Albany High School who were accused of “liking” or commenting on the posts, which showed pictures of female African American classmates and the girls basketball coach with nooses drawn around their necks. Other images showed the girls next to photos of apes, according to the Mercury News.
The posts surfaced in March, after some of the students’ classmates took screen shots of them and reported them to administrators at the public high school. The student who created the images — not named in the lawsuit — was suspended.
A complaint filed this week accuses the Albany Unified School District of going too far in suspending the other students. The lawsuit — which names the school district, the school and several administrators — alleges the four plaintiffs were punished in violation of their First Amendment and due process rights.
“This action arises out of a private online discussion between friends that the Albany School system has pried into without authority,” the lawsuit said. “All conduct at issue in this matter occurred off school property, were conducted off school hours, and were otherwise completely unrelated to school activity.”
Albany Unified School District Superintendent Valerie Williams said in a statement Wednesday that the district was reviewing the case.
“The district takes great care to ensure that our students feel safe at school, and we are committed to providing an inclusive and respectful learning environment for all of our students,” Williams said, as reported by the Mercury News. “The district intends to defend this commitment and its conduct within the court system.”
The lawsuit alleged that the plaintiffs, all juniors, were wrongfully suspended by the school in late March after some of their classmates took screen shots of the Instagram posts and reported them to administrators.
When the students returned on March 30, the lawsuit said, administrators forced them to march through the school while their peers tormented them.
“School administrators allowed the student body to hurl obscenities, scream profanities, and jeer at the Plaintiffs and the other suspended students, who were all not allowed to leave what the school considered an act of ‘atonement’ but was rather a thinly veiled form of public shaming,” the lawsuit said.
Eventually, a parent stepped in and convinced administrators to stop the event, which was described in the complaint as a “healing” exercise.
Later the same day, they attended a “voluntary restorative justice session” organized by a community group. A few hundred students and parents gathered outside to protest. When the session came to a close, the demonstration grew tense, prompting the plaintiffs’ parents to ask for a police escort out, according to the complaint.
As two of the plaintiffs were leaving, an incensed demonstrator struck both of them in the head, leaving one of them with a broken nose and the other with cuts and bruises, the lawsuit alleged.
“Plaintiffs have all have suffered emotional distress due to these incidents,” the complaint read, “including anxiety, fear, insomnia and other distress.”
The students want the school to wipe their disciplinary records clean, refrain from any further punishment and allow them to make up the work they missed.
Some of the students on the receiving end of the racist posts told local media they felt threatened. The uncle and guardian of a teenage girl shown in one of the images told the Mercury News his niece’s grades suffered after the incident.
“Free speech is a fundamental right,” said the uncle, who asked not to be named, “but it can’t be at the expense of hurting someone.”
A woman who said she was the mother of a sophomore at the school told the Mercury News: “This is bullying. This is racist. This is sexist. They were attacking kids.”