Education

Honors student says he wrote 'commentary' on shootings. School expelled him for 'threats.'

Boyle County Superintendent Mike LaFavers, left, and Board of Education Chair Jennifer Newby prepared to re-enter public session after the board held a 30-minute executive session Thursday night to discuss a lawsuit filed against the school board over the expulsion of a student in February.
Boyle County Superintendent Mike LaFavers, left, and Board of Education Chair Jennifer Newby prepared to re-enter public session after the board held a 30-minute executive session Thursday night to discuss a lawsuit filed against the school board over the expulsion of a student in February. Advocate Messenger

An honors English student, one of several dozen Kentucky teens disciplined by school districts for allegedly making threats earlier this year, contends in a lawsuit that his constitutional rights were violated when he was expelled and that he never intended anyone to see his writings, which were commentary "on the recent national trend of school shootings. "

The parent of a 17-year old junior at Boyle County High School, known in court records by the initials W.H.R., filed the lawsuit against Boyle County Public Schools officials in late April on his behalf. The complaint, filed in Boyle Circuit Court, said the boy was expelled in February after fatal school shootings in Western Kentucky and Florida. His fellow students alerted staff to his school laptop writings about school threats .

“W.H.R made no threats to anyone. His writings, none of which were meant to be seen by anyone at the school, were commentary on the recent national trend of school shootings," the complaint said. "The writing which triggered the alarm was written in the third person using literary techniques that W.H.R. had been taught in his honors English class. The school administrators, reacting in the context of the latest national school shooting, overreacted to the writing and chose to expel W.H.R. to eliminate any perceived risk no matter how insignificant it was."

In court documents, school district officials deny the allegations and are asking that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Bill Noelker, the Danville attorney representing the student, said he was not criminally charged.

"There were no direct or even implicit threats which is why we ended up filing this lawsuit," said Noelker. "The writings were in the context of creative writing, not about anybody at the school, not about any teachers in the school. No kids were named. No school administrators were named. The school was not even mentioned in the writings. "

The Danville Messenger-Advocate reported that the school board met in closed session May 10 about the lawsuit.

The complaint in the lawsuit filed against the Boyle County Board of Education and Boyle County Superintendent Mike LaFavers maintains that the student was expelled without due process and is being given substandard educational services. The case appears to be one of the first in Kentucky filed on behalf on students who were accused of making school-related threats earlier this year following fatal shootings in Kentucky and Florida.

According to court documents, the student was an 11th grader at Boyle County High School until he was expelled on Feb. 28 for the rest of the year. He had been enrolled in numerous school activities and advanced placement classes, had no prior significant disciplinary problems, and an above average grade point average. On Feb. 16, unnamed students reported to Boyle County High staff members that they had seen a writing from the student that was "troubling."

On the same day, staff members seized the student’s school laptop to look at the writing. They contacted the principal, who wasn’t at school that day but suspended the student for three days for the perceived threat from the writing. The principal found more writings on the laptop, suspended the student for seven days and recommended him for expulsion “for threats of violence." The second set of writings the principal found were never distributed to anyone, the complaint said.

"Despite the lack of any evidence of any specific threat to anyone at the school or anyone else, the board elected to expel W.H.R.,” the complaint said.

District officials are requiring a psychological evaluation, counseling, and a new threat assessment successfully completed this summer. If the student complies, he could apply to an alternative school for the rest of his education.

Noelker said school officials "overreacted" to the student's research on school shootings that was reflected in his writings. Noelker described the teen as a model student, "incredibly bright," who was well-regarded by school administrators.

"It's one of the difficult positions that we are in as a society right now in how we are going to deal with these very real threats in these school shootings. But they just overreacted. They didn't have the justification," said Noelker.

“The board’s ruling was arbitrary and capricious and not supported by evidence at the hearing,” the complaint said.

Noelker said "one of the most telling things to me is that one of the mental health professionals that he was sent to by the school to make an assessment of him" testified that "he's not a threat to anybody, he should be allowed to go back to school."

The lawsuit is asking for a judge to issue a finding that LaFavers and school board members violated the student's state and federal constitutional rights and to issue an order that he be allowed to re-enroll in school. But it is also asking for a finding that a state school expulsion statute is an unconstitutional infringement upon the fundamental right to a public education in that it doesn't require schools to demonstrate that they attempt sanctions and interventions to help students prior to resorting to expulsion.

The lawsuit is asking that all disciplinary records regarding the expulsion be sealed and expunged and that the student be given after school tutoring and other help that would put him in the same academic position as he would have been if he had not been expelled.

In response, Louisville attorney Dana Collins, who represents the school board and the superintendent, said in an interview that the student "made some very serious threats that were concerning and as a result was ultimately expelled."

"He did receive a full hearing in front of the board and that particular hearing we believe was carried out as it should have been in accordance with the expulsion statute.," Collins said.

Collins said the student was given due process before he was expelled.

"We stand behind that decision," she said.

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