CAMDEN, N.J. (CN) - A high school unconstitutionally barred a girl from her graduation and prom because of a tweet from her home in which she called her principal a "pussy ass bitch," the girl and her mom claim in Federal Court.
The girl, H.W., and her mother, C.W., sued the Sterling High School District, its Superintendent Jack McCulley and Sterling High School Principal Mark Napoleon.
They say, "the school district defendants have violated H.W.'s constitutional right to free speech by imposing school discipline for nonthreatening, purely off-campus speech, which H.W. expressed at home on Twitter to her friends."
C.W. claims her daughter "is a child with a disability, diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and bipolar disorder," disabilities "characterized by oppositional behavior and difficulty with authority" and "dramatic mood swings."
The mother says her daughter has been "frequently punished by the defendants for oppositional behaviors and violations of school rules" and that "the punishment imposed was often to put H.W. out of school for varying lengths of time."
The latest problem started after H.W. became upset at Sterling High School while on the phone with her mother in January. H.W. "engaged in agitated argument," which led to her being reported to Principal Napoleon "for violations of school code with respect to use of cell phone, cursing in school and disrespect to teachers."
H.W. was suspended for two days for this. Her mother says the suspension was overturned when she spoke with a vice principal - but the problem didn't end there.
That night, H.W. says, she "was conversing with 3-4 friends of hers on Twitter" and complained that "defendant Napoleon had punished her even though she had not done anything wrong." She called him a "pussy ass bitch."
She also asked "if her friends wanted to 'smoke' with her before school the next day," the complaint states, without elucidation other than "No one accepted."
The next day, H.W. went to school unaware that the school had "decided to examine H.W.'s out-of-school Twitter account," which they did "without notice to H.W. or C.W."
Mother and daughter were called into a meeting that day, where Superintendent McCulley "confronted H.W. with the statement she made on Twitter about defendant Napoleon."
The mother and daughter say that McCulley "berated H.W. for what he called 'defamatory' remarks."
H.W. eventually "broke down," according to the complaint, and the defendants "showed no concern for H.W.'s well-being and failed to apologize or offer support." Mother and daughter were "taken out of the building by the security officer."
The school district then sent them a letter in which the defendants "contended that [H.W.'s] expressed opinion was 'defamatory' and punished her by banning her specifically from her attending her Senior Prom, her senior class trip and from walking in the school's graduation ceremony with her peers," and banning her from "any school sponsored activity."
In the same letter, the defendants said they had "determined that there were also grounds to require [H.W.] to submit to a drug test."
The mother and daughter claim the school district "failed to provide [H.W.] with any opportunity to defend herself against the alleged 'smoke tweets'" and had "already determined to punish H.W. for her Twitter remarks" before the meeting, by "already informing other district personnel that they were sending H.W. to an alternative disciplinary school."
H.W. and her mother say that the defendants "have overreached by punishing H.W. for purely off-campus speech with no evidence that H.W.'s opinion caused, or would cause, a material and substantial disruption at the high school."
They say that "H.W. has been denied the once-in-a-lifetime senior experiences" and that she needs a prompt ruling "because these events will occur before this case otherwise will come to a conclusion."
H.W. is to graduate in June. She seeks declaratory judgment, a restraining order and injunction, expungement of her disciplinary records, and wants the defendants ordered to brush up on their Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights.
The family is represented by Jerry Tanenbaum with Mattleman, Weinroth & Miller of Cherry Hill.