FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - A student says high school officials had police arrest and interrogate him, then suspended him for 15 days for logging onto a Facebook page that parodied the school's principal. He says he didn't create the parody, and never logged onto the Facebook page with school computers, or during school hours or on school property.
Jacob Fleener and his parents sued Clovis West High School, the Clovis School District, Clovis High principal Benjamin Drati, and the district's Director of Student Services Gregory Bass, in Fresno County Court.
Fleener, who was a junior at the time, says he "was removed from his English class by a district police officer and a Clovis SRC [Student Resource Center] employee" in February 2010.
He was taking an English test at the time, but the police refused his English teacher's request to let him finish the test, Fleener says.
"Jacob was taken to the SRC and put in a room with two district police services officers. Nobody asked Jacob if he wanted a principal/designee with him. The SRC employee left Jacob alone with the officers then came back a moment later and confiscated Jacob's cell phone (which was turned off). The SRC employee then left Jacob alone with the two police officers who proceeded to question him." (Parentheses in complaint.)
The complaint continues: "The two district police services officers questioned Jacob while he was in their custody, but did not initially Mirandize him. After the questioning was completed, however, the officers told Jacob that although they did not need to read him his rights, they were going to do so anyway. His rights were read, and then no other questions were asked. Jacob was told to write a statement for the school, which he did.
"At all times, Jacob cooperated with the district officers and told the truth. Upon the completion of questioning, Jacob's phone was returned by the SRC employee, but it was turned on. Plaintiffs are informed and believe that the officers had turned the phone on in order to unlawfully search it."
Fleener says the school released him into the custody of his father and gave his father a letter signed by Clovis West's learning director, which stated that "Jacob participated in an activity that led to [his] arrest for ID theft."
The letter added that Jacob was being suspended for five days, and was being considered for transfer to "alternative education" for allegations of disrupting school activities, disruptive behavior, malicious defamation of school personnel, bullying, harassment, threats and intimidation.
"The incident which led to all of the foregoing was Jacob's minimal participation in a Facebook parody of Clovis West principal Ben Drati. Jacob did not create the Drati Facebook page. He was given the log-in information after the fact by the two other Clovis West students who created the Facebook page, and logged onto the page on five occasions over a several week period in approximately November 2009, and made posts. Jacob did not use any school computers to log-on or post to the Facebook page, and never did so during school hours or while on school property," the complaint states.
The Fleeners say that Drati and other school administrators refused to meet with them until after Jacob had served his five-day suspension.
When he finally did meet with them, they say, "Drati was rude and condescending to plaintiffs, which plaintiffs perceived as an attempt to bully, intimidate and belittle them. Drati was also deliberately untruthful with plaintiffs. For instance, Drati informed plaintiffs during the meeting that he had not yet made a decision on what discipline to implement/recommend for Jacob. However, plaintiffs subsequently learned that Drati had already given his recommendation to the district, and that he had recommended that Jacob be permanently removed from Clovis West."
The Fleeners say they appealed the forced transfer, but the district refused to let him return to Clovis West High School.
"Jacob was approved to transfer to Buchanan High School, and also told that he could choose to enroll at Enterprise, as the district had already advised him. At this point, defendants dropped Jacob from his classes at Clovis West," the complaint states.
But three days later the district reversed itself, and said Jacob could return to his school, could make up the course work and tests he had missed, and that the district would "expunge, rescind and remove Jacob's purported arrest by the district police services from his files," and the school district promised "not to engage in any retaliatory activities."
But that didn't happen, the family says. They say his arrest record was not "completely removed from his files," which they found out only after the district refused to comply with their public records request, and the Fresno Superior Court ordered the school to release it.
Some teachers were "reluctant" to let him make up work, "and his grades suffered as a result," the family says.
And they say that "although the District Attorney's Office determined that no crime had been committed and therefore declined to pursue the matter (even though defendants were pushing to have Jacob prosecuted for felony identity theft) and although defendants had been informed of the DA Office's decision, defendants continued to publicly assert that Jacob had committed various crimes, including identity theft and cyber-bullying." (Parentheses in complaint.)
The Fleeners say that because Jacob "did not use school equipment and was not on school grounds or school time when he made the parody Facebook posts, he was not within the jurisdiction of the principal nor engaged in school activity or attendance, and his suspension was wrongful."
They seek punitive damages for slander, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violations of the California Education Code and constitutional violations.
The family is represented by Janlynn Fleener with Downey Brand, of Sacramento.
Courthouse News Service