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Student fights 'cyberbullying' penalty

MIAMI — Katherine Evans said she was frustrated with her English teacher for ignoring her pleas for help with assignments and a brusque reproach when she missed class to attend a school blood drive.

So Evans, who was then a high school senior and honor student, logged onto the networking site Facebook and wrote a rant against the teacher, Sarah Phelps.

"To those select students who have had the displeasure of having Ms. Sarah Phelps, or simply knowing her and her insane antics: Here is the place to express your feelings of hatred," she wrote.

A few days later, Evans removed the post from her Facebook page and went about the business of preparing for graduation and studying journalism in the fall.

But two months after her online venting, Evans was called into the principal's office and was told she was being suspended for "cyber bully ing," a blemish on her record that she said she feared could keep her from getting into graduate schools or landing her dream job.

"It was all very quick the way it happened," said Evans, now a freshman at the University of Florida.

She is suing the principal of her school, Peter Bayer. She is asking for no monetary compensation beyond her legal fees, said her lawyer, Matthew Bavaro, and she simply wants to have the suspension removed from her record.

A lawyer for Bayer and Pembroke Pines Charter High School has yet to respond to the legal complaint, filed in December, and refused to comment on the pending litigation.

Bavaro said he viewed the suspension as an attack on Evans' right to free speech.

But educational disciplinarians disagree.

"You can express an opinion on whether someone is a good teacher," said Pamela Brown, assistant director for the Broward County School District, who oversees expulsions. "But when you start inviting people to say that they hate a teacher, that crosses the line."

Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said he was appalled by the school's position.

"Since when did criticism of a teacher morph into assault?" Simon said. "If Katie Evans said what she said over burgers with her friends at the mall, there is no question it would be protected by free speech."