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Published: Thursday, 4/27/2006

Student wins reinstatement

Saying that Springfield Local schools cannot afford to fight the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the board of education last night reluctantly reinstated a middle school student who posted false profiles of a teacher and administrator on a popular teen social networking computer site.

Board members described the information posted by a 14-year-old girl as pornography, but the ACLU has argued that the fake profiles, while offensive, were jokes that made fun of the two school employees.

The girl did not attend the school board meeting, but her parents were present. About 40 people were in the audience.

Arnold Gottlieb, a Toledo attorney who represented the student and her parents on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said he was pleased with the decision but did not necessarily agree with the board's reason because it involved the district's financial issues. The student is to return to classes Monday.

"I give them credit for doing ultimately the right thing," he said.

Since March 22, the eighth-grade student hasn't been allowed to be on school property. She has been tutored at home, but her parents said in an interview last night before the decision that their daughter had only received six hours of tutoring.

The student was suspended for 10 days and then, in lieu of expulsion, received tutoring at home.

Disciplinary action was taken after administrators learned that the student had created false profiles of a teacher and an assistant principal on MySpace.com. The fake profile of the administrator contained sexual remarks and innuendos, the attorney said.

During the public discussion on the matter, Superintendent Cynthia Beekley asked whether the attorney wanted the MySpace postings to be read aloud in public. Mr. Gottlieb declined.

Earlier this week, Jeffrey Gamso, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, called the punishment absurd and unconstitutional and said the MySpace "parody" was a joke.

The girl's parents declined interviews after the school board's vote to reinstate their daughter.

The student, who used her home computer to post the information on MySpace, voluntarily removed the material from the MySpace site and apologized to the teacher and administrator, the attorney said.

An online apology was posted by the student as well, he said.

Matt Geha, Springfield Middle School principal, said he does everything he can to create a positive environment for teachers, students, and others at the school, but he added that the incident was "ugly" and described the girl's fake profiles as pornography.

On MySpace, she pretended that she was the teacher and an assistant principal.

Following an executive session, board members said the district could not afford to spend tax dollars to fight the issue in court.

Mr. Gottlieb said earlier this week that the ACLU would consider court action unless the student was reinstated.

Board member Ken Musch said that board members are all furious that a student would post such information online about another person, let alone a teacher and assistant principal. He said that the postings on MySpace by the girl were "nothing but pornography." The district, which is struggling financially, cannot afford to go to court over the matter, he said, noting that it could cost the district into the six-figure range for a court battle.

If the district could afford it, Mr. Musch said, "we would fight."

Board member Keiran Menacher said that although it made her sick to do it, she seconded Mr. Musch's motion to reinstate the student.

"We have to think of all of the students," she said. She hopes the girl goes back to school and serves as an example for others on how not to behave.

Board President Nancy Decker said money for litigation would take away funds for the education of other students, and that the board wasn't willing to do that.

Early in the session, Mr. Gottlieb told the board that the ACLU's sole purpose was to get the girl back in school as a regular, full-time student. The punishment, he said, was over-reactive.

Rules spelled out in the student handbook are not applicable at all to the girl, Mr. Gottlieb said.

Although the comments posted by the student were offensive and embarrassing, the attorney argued that because the remarks were so juvenile and "over the top," it would be hard for anyone to believe the profiles were true or made by the teacher or administrator.

Mr. Gottlieb said there is a free speech issue but added that he is not making any excuses for the comments that the girl put on MySpace.

He said the comments were in poor taste but he repeated that this was a parental disciplinary matter, not a school matter, because the student used her home computer to post the information, and because the school district has filters that prevent students from accessing MySpace.com.

He said that the fake profiles were not disruptive and were not threatening. However, school officials strongly disagreed.



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