By JOE HARRIS
(CN) – A Florida student sued her high school, claiming it tried to bully her into abstaining from an anti-bullying Day of Silence, and suspended her for keeping her mouth shut.
Amber Hatcher sued the DeSoto County School Board, its Superintendent Adrian Cline, DeSoto County High School Principal Shannon Fusco and its Dean of Students Ermatine Jones, in Fort Myers Federal Court.
Hatcher was a 15-year-old freshman during the fiasco last April.
Hatcher claims she asked Principal Fusco for permission to participate in a “National Day of Silence” to protest bullying.
The Day of Silence is the nation’s largest student-led action, “a peer-to-peer education campaign designed to bring attention to the harassment and bullying experienced by many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students and the destructive, silencing effects of anti-gay discrimination on LGBT students in schools,” Hatcher says in the complaint.
Fusco refused to permit it, telling Hatcher that participants would be punished because “peaceful protests are against district policy,” according to the complaint.
Hatcher says she appealed to Superintendent Cline, three times, and he refused permission too.
“On April 19, 2012, the day before Day of Silence, Principal Fusco interrupted Amber’s instruction time by calling her out of class and into her office where she warned Amber again that if she came to school the following day and ‘was quiet, there would be disciplinary consequence,” the complaint states.
Hatcher says Fusco called her parents to suggest they talk her out of participating – being silent – and suggested they keep her home that day to avoid problems. Hatcher says Lambda Legal sent Fusco and Cline a letter on April 19 that set out the district’s legal obligation to allow Hatcher to participate. The law office also sent Hatcher information on her right to wear a T-shirt with a message about the Day of Silence, so long as it was not vulgar and did not interfere with the rights of her fellow students.
Hatcher says the district’s actions chilled her right to free speech, and the rights of her fellow students. She claims many students who expressed interest in participating backed out for fear of getting in trouble.
“On the morning of national Day of Silence, April 20, 2012, Principal Fusco sent an email to all teachers advising them that: ‘If you have students who are wearing placards in protest of an issue or disrupting the hallways or classrooms, please notify the dean or administration and we will handle it. If a student refused to participate in class by taking part of a silent protest, that is considered a disruption. Again, please notify the administration, and we will handle it,'” the complaint states.
Hatcher wore a T-shirt to school that day, with the message: “DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh.”
She says she remained silent, had friends communicate the reason for her silence, and communicated through messages written on a dry erase board.
“Less than ten minutes into her third-period class, Amber was summoned to the Dean of Student’s office, whereupon defendant Jones asked whether Amber ‘wanted in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension,'” the complaint states. “When Amber asked why she was being punished, Dean Jones said, ‘Mrs. Fusco told you not to do this.’ Amber responded that she knew her First Amendment rights and that the school could not suspend her for exercising them.”
Hatcher was given in-school suspension. She says another student was also disciplined for his involvement in the protest and that Fusco already has denied her permission to participate in this year’s Day of Silence.
Hatcher seeks an injunction, wants her disciplinary record expunged, and actual and punitive damages for constitutional violations, retaliation, failure to train, and failure to supervise.
She is represented by Nancy Faggianelli, with Carlton Fields, of Tampa.