Student suspended over poem files federal lawsuit

Friday, July 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Owasso school officials overreacted when they suspended a high school student who wrote a poem about a student who fantasized about killing a teacher, the attorney for the suspended student contends in a federal lawsuit.

The poem was merely "a work of fiction" that was shown only to a friend and then forgotten until found by school officials, attorney Jim Tilly said. "School officials went after a fly with an anvil, rather than a fly-swatter," Tilly wrote in the lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit was brought against the Owasso School District by the student's parents, identified only as D.G. and C.G, and the student, referred to as M.G. In addition to claiming that the school violated the student's constitutional rights, they have asked the court to immediately reinstate the student this fall. They also are seeking an order to bar identifying them in any court papers and exclude the public from any jury trial.

Karen Long, attorney for the school district, said the case will further define "the tender balance" between a student's First Amendment right to self-expression and a school district's obligation to protect its students and employees in an era marked by school violence. Long said schools are faced with the challenge of balancing safety with their students' rights to express themselves. "School districts are caught in the middle," she said Thursday. "They are not predictors of which students who write things like this will actually do anything."

According to the complaint, Tilly's client wrote the poem on May 3 while in an advanced drama class. Tilly said his client states without hesitation that there was never any intent to kill the teacher. Instead, Tilly said writing the poem was a private way for his client to express frustration with an instructor who allegedly had repeatedly belittled the student. Tilly claims that his client showed the poem to a close friend after class and that the two students laughed about it. Tilly said the plaintiff "thought nothing further" of the poem until summoned to the principal's office six days later on May 9.

According to the lawsuit, someone had written on the poem that it had been found on the floor of a school room. Tilly said his client was sent back to class after admitting authorship of the poem and was suspended at the end of the school lday when an assistant principal phoned the plaintiff's mother.

School Principal Rick Dossett then reportedly sent a lette informing the student's parents that their child had been suspended for the remainder of the 1999-2000 school year and the first semester of the 2000-2001 school year "for violation of school policy concerning a death threat to a faculty member."

The parents appealed and the suspension was reduced to the firs nine weeks of the upcoming semester. But the full semester suspension was reinstated by the school board after a June 5hearing. "The facts strongly suggest that the poem was not a sincere expression of intent to harm or assault, and the poem therefore falls squarely within the purview of the First Amendment core protections," Tilly wrote in his complaint. "The vigilan tprotection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools."