Florin High’s punishment of student whose video went viral draws free speech questions

Video: Florin High Principal Don Ross speaks at meeting

Florin High Principal Don Ross talks about how the image of the school has been tarnished by the publicity over a lunchtime brawl.
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Florin High Principal Don Ross talks about how the image of the school has been tarnished by the publicity over a lunchtime brawl.

After Florin High School suspended a student who recorded a cafeteria melee this week on her cell phone, free speech experts said Friday that administrators may have overreached by disciplining someone who captured video in a public gathering place.

The video recorded by Tiana Johnson, 15, quickly went viral, airing on “Inside Edition” and landing on several national news media sites. It brought unwanted attention to the campus, where Principal Don Ross decried the negative light cast on the school and called it “hurtful” to students.

Johnson received a three-day suspension for recording the fight, filing “inflammatory” remarks on social media and declining to “write a statement” about her actions, according to school paperwork. That disciplinary move drew questions from Johnson’s parents and free speech experts.

“She had a right to be where she was and she took the video and she posted it online,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

He noted that the cafeteria was crowded and not private. “That’s protected activity. To the extent that she’s being disciplined for having done that, it violates state law.”

Student recordings have spread widely through social media as smartphones have become as commonplace as backpacks on high school campuses. Just four days after the Florin incident, student video that appeared to show a McClatchy High School teacher wrestling a student from his desk to the ground resulted in the teacher’s arrest on Friday.

During Monday’s altercation, a student slammed Ross to the floor of the cafeteria as he tried to break up the fight. Three students – two 15-year-olds and a 13-year-old – were arrested and sent to juvenile hall. They have not been identified because they are minors.

Johnson started her suspension Friday, four days after the brawl that involved eight to 10 students. After Ross was thrown to the floor, he jumped back up in an effort to restrain his assailant. He and two other school officials suffered minor injuries.

The district’s order of Johnson’s home suspension came Monday afternoon and was shared with The Bee by a family member. It complains that Johnson disrupted school activities “and otherwise willfully defied the valid authority” of those engaged in performing their duties. The details of the decision do not cite the specific language of the school handbook that she is accused of violating.

District officials said they are unable to comment on any disciplinary action.

The 90-page student handbook does bar students from using electronic devices to make audio and/or video recordings that infringe upon the privacy rights of students and or staff. It makes no mention of social media. But it says parents may appeal a suspension.

Keith Mims, coordinator of student support and health services for the Elk Grove Unified School District, said he did not want the discussion to focus on freedom of expression. “I don’t want this to become a First Amendment rights issue as opposed to safety,” he said.

Mims said that willful disobedience could occur when students fail to leave the area of a fight after being asked.

In a situation like the one that occurred Monday, he said, evidence of such disobedience “is the video posted by the student.”

District spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton said 12 students so far have been disciplined related to Monday’s incident and that the investigation is continuing. But she offered no details about why they were disciplined or what their punishments were.

Johnson’s father, Morris Johnson, said Friday he planned to appeal his daughter’s suspension.

“The school was embarrassed,” Johnson said. He said that he and his daughter wondered if she would have faced suspension if she had recorded something that put the school in a positive light.

“She’s a little disappointed,” he said. “She hates missing school. She’s asking, ‘Dad, why are they punishing me?’ 

About 100 parents gathered Thursday night in the auditorium at Florin High School to express concerns about the recent events, which started with the discovery of two sets of notes in school bathrooms threatening the school and warning something would happen on Oct. 27.

Ross described Florin High School as “an incredible place. These were unfortunate incidents and I don’t want us to lose sight of how wonderful the students and staff are at Florin High School.”

He’s not alone in his perspective. Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said he understands where the school is coming from, but that doesn’t mean a student loses her free speech rights.

“It’s a difficult case,” he said. “Kids are of an age where they are capable of doing each other serious harm. I’m very sympathetic to the principal who first of all got banged up by being tossed to the floor. Nonetheless, he jumped back up and continued to help stop the fight.

“I respect him and applaud him for that. And I’m sympathetic to his desire. He’s proud of the school.

“Nonetheless, everybody has got to know and learn that the First Amendment does not allow them to punish the messenger.”

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