Threats of Violence May Justify Student's Suspension or Expulsion

The Ninth Circuit appropriately summarized the difficult job of a school administrator in Wynar v. Douglas County School District when Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown noted that “[w]ith the advent of the Internet and in the wake of school shootings at Columbine, Santee, Newtown and many others, school administrators face the daunting task of evaluating potential threats of violence and keeping their students safe without impinging on their constitutional rights. It is a feat like tightrope balancing, where an error in judgment can lead to a tragic result.”

The case involved a student – who had confirmed access to weapons and ammunition – who threatened over the Internet to carry out a violent attack at the school.

The school principal and other official s took the threat seriously and suspended, then later expelled, the student who had made the threats.  The student then sued the district and claimed that the disciplinary action violated his First Amendment right to free speech and his related Due Process Rights.

Both the trial judge and the Ninth Circuit rejected the student’s claims, and in passing Judge McKeown observed that "[c]ourts have long dealt with the tension between students’ First Amendment rights and 'the special characteristics of the school environment.' Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260, 266 (1988). But the challenge for administrators is made all the more difficult because, outside of the official school environment, students are instant messaging, texting, emailing, Twittering, Tumblring, and otherwise communicating electronically, sometimes about subjects that threaten the safety of the school environment. At the same time, school officials must take care not to overreact and to take into account the creative juices and often startling writings of the students."

The student in question was enrolled at Douglas High School. He engaged in a string of increasingly violent and threatening instant messages sent from home to his friends bragging about his weapons, threatening to shoot specific classmates, intimating that he would “take out” other people at a school shooting on a specific date, and invoking the image of the Virginia Tech massacre. His friends were alarmed and notified school authorities, who temporarily expelled the student based in large part on these instant messages. The appellate panel affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the school district. “The messages presented a real risk of significant disruption to school activities and interfered with the rights of other students,” said the court. “Under the circumstances, the school district did not violate [the student’s] rights to freedom of expression or due process.”

For your convenience, a complete copy of the court’s opinion is attached.

At Slote Links & Boreman, LLP, we represent school administrators, teachers, parents and students and schools/school districts in a variety of contexts.  Please feel free contact us if you need advice in this area.