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Student, parents sue school district over handling of “joke” about bomb threat

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A student in the Central York School District and his parents are suing the district and two administrators over their handling of a comment the boy made on Facebook about a bomb threat last fall at Central York High School.

In the federal lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday and can be viewed by clicking here, the parents allege the school district violated their son’s First and Fourteenth Amendment rights when administrators suspended him from school for 23 days over a comment the boy claimed was a “joke.”

The case deals with a bomb threat at the high school on October 23. The school was evacuated that morning at 9:30 as a result of threat. Students were sent home about two hours later.

Springettsbury Township police say they eventually found a note in the bathroom and linked it to a suspect they believe was responsible for the bomb threat.

According to the lawsuit, Michael and Jill Lordan’s son posted on Facebook later that day, “Plot twist: They don’t find the bomb and it goes off tomorrow.”

In the complaint filed Tuesday, the Lordans attorney describe the comment as a “misplaced attempt at humor.”

The district’s administrators didn’t view it that way and suspended the student for 23 days. He missed school from October 24 to December 3.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages; to have the district’s policies declared “excessively vague and overbroad;” to have the incident expunged from the boy’s record; and to have the district revise its policies. The Lordans also want the district to pay their attorney’s fees.

According to the lawsuit, the boy’s grades declined because of the suspension. He also missed after-school activities and is concerned about the suspension being “disclosed to college admissions officers, military recruiters, or employers.”

In a statement released to FOX43, school district spokeswoman Julie Randall Romig said, “The courts have made clear that there is no First Amendment right to yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre. We believe that it should be equally clear that there is no right to ‘joke’ about a bomb going off ‘tomorrow’ at the high school. Not only did this cause understandable apprehension in the school community, it also caused the District to bring the Springettsbury Police Department back in to conduct a second investigation.. The student was provided with due process and, under the circumstances, his obvious misconduct could have justified much more severe discipline.  The District will vigorously defend its right to protect the safety and well being of its students.”

The Lordans did not respond to a request for comment. Their attorney Zachary Nahass declined a request for an interview.

“One of the implications of using Facebook anymore is that we put something on Facebook, and we really lose control over who has access to that,” said Widener Law School professor Randy Lee. “We live in a world where there’s reason to believe that you have to take every comment like this seriously.”

Lee said both sides likely will cite the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which involved high school students who wore black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the students, saying their actions didn’t disrupt the school.

Lee pointed out in the Central York case, part of what’s important to consider is how people who viewed the student’s comment could perceive it, especially in light of recent violent incidents at schools across the country.

“People are going to encounter that who don’t know that when he says, ‘plot twist,’ he’s being sarcastic,” said Lee.

The judge has scheduled a case management conference on May 30.

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