Student punished for Web posting critical of school

Principal suspends student journalist for criticism of school's prior review policy

MASSACHUSETTS -- A recent high school graduate has put off applying to college because he does not want admissions officers to see a disciplinary marking on his record for “attempted terrorist activities.”

Todd Graham, former co-editor of the Witches Brew, a student newspaper at Salem High School, was suspended for seven days for posting a message from home on a nonschool-sponsored Web site critical of the school. 

The message read: “I haven’t been in class for the last couple of days due to being sick to my stomach because of the school and what this is turning into. When I get my chance I will show everyone how I feel. I have never held back before, and I won’t start now.”

Graham said the posting meant that he was not going to be silenced about his opposition to the school district’s newly enacted student publications prior review policy and Superintendent Herb Levine’s treatment of students during meetings about the change. In December, Principal Ann Papagiotas ordered the newspaper’s publication date delayed until students changed editorials on low student moral and school policies forbidding hats and eating in classrooms. The school then established a prior review policy breaking with the state’s tradition of only allowing censorship of a student publication if it would lead to a substantial disruption at the school. 

Graham contacted Jeffrey Pyle, an attorney working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, who wrote a letter to Levine opposing the policy. 

“I was threatening to open up the floodgates about what had happened between me and the superintendent,” Graham said.

In a letter to the Salem School Committee, Raymond Buso, Graham’s attorney, wrote that during a meeting with Graham and his parents, “Dr. Levine threatened to use his position as superintendent to prevent Todd from ever being accepted to college.” 

Administrators say, however, that the posting was “threatening the health, safety and welfare of the entire Salem High School community through the use of the Internet” and “causing a school disturbance as a result of the above,” according to a June 6 article in the Boston Globe.

Levine and Papagiotas refused requests for comment. Buso said the school has no jurisdiction over Internet communications, which he said in this case were not brought onto school grounds, occurred off school property, and any disturbances to the school were caused by the administration’s reactions -- not Graham’s posting. 

“They really don’t have a right to take any judicial action against him,” he said.Still, across the country students are facing similar legal battles to get disciplinary action for Internet communications removed from their records. In New Jersey, a middle school student sued his school district because he was suspended for 10 days, removed from the baseball team and barred from a school trip for creating a Web site that said the school was “just downright boring.” 

In Georgia, two recent graduates settled a lawsuit for $95,000, and the school district will remove suspensions from their records for posting messages the school ruled as threatening to a teacher. And in Ohio, a high school student is appealing to the state Board of Education -- but may seek legal remedies -- to have a 10-day suspension removed from his record for including a link on his personal Web site to another site that included content administrators called violent and threatening.

Graham and Buso said they are prepared to continue working to get Graham’s record cleared even in the face of an administrative roadblock. In early July, Superintendent Herb Levine resigned and may continue as a consultant with the district, but his future is uncertain, as the School Committee must approve hiring him. Salem City Councilor Thomas Furey, who has called for Papagiotas to be fired or resign for unrelated incidents, is holding a public hearing about problems at Salem High School. 

Buso hopes the committee will review Levine’s and Papagiotas’ actions involving Graham, and if the committee finds that either acted improperly, it could help any future lawsuits to remove the suspension from Graham’s transcripts.

Read previous coverage

Fall 2004, Massachusetts, reports, Salem High School, Witches Brew