School suspensions of two Lee’s Summit brothers could be revived after a federal appeals court Wednesday killed a lower court’s order.
The students, twin brothers, had been suspended for 180 days early this year because of what the Lee’s Summit School District deemed offensive and insensitive comments posted on the boys’ website in December 2011.
But U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs issued a preliminary injunction in March that stayed the remaining 69 days of their suspensions. That decision, reversed by the appeals court Wednesday, said they could return to the high school to finish their junior years.
They are seniors now, and members of the marching band. This week’s ruling by the three-judge appeals panel will leave it to Sachs to sort out how to rule on the suspensions if Wednesday’s ruling is not appealed to the full 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Sachs said at the time of his ruling that the boys’ interest in returning to Lee’s Summit North High School outweighed the district’s concerns about potential new disruptions at the school. He did not rule on the merits of the case.
In its decision issued Wednesday, the 8th Circuit panel acknowledged the difficulty of sorting out a suspension that had been suspended by a judicial ruling.
“We leave to the District Court the unenviable task of fashioning a remedy several months after the entry of the injunction and the (boys’) return to school,” the appellate court wrote in its decision.
Kevin Weakley, an attorney representing the boys’ parents, said “the family is obviously disappointed and is evaluating further appeal.”
The twins’ parents sued the district in March. They argued their sons’ classes at the district’s alternative high school — where they were sent during the suspensions — were not academically rewarding. They also said the boys would miss the opportunity to try out for leadership positions with the school’s marching band and drum line.
Both boys were suspended late last year after they posted what school officials deemed sexually offensive and racially insensitive remarks on their website, NorthPress. But discussion of the case has also focused on a racially inflammatory post on their site made by another student without the twins’ knowledge.
The boys had testified that they saw the website as an outlet for satire and sarcasm about their high school. They said they expected only a handful of friends would read the material and failed to protect it with a password only because they didn’t know how.
Clearly, however, the website created a buzz at the school. Testimony in the case included teachers talking about trouble keeping order while students were distracted “and in some cases upset by NorthPress.”
The appellate court conceded the First Amendment implications of the twins’ rights to express themselves freely. But it also cited several other cases where courts have found messages “directed at” a school could be cause for disciplinary action.
The parents, the court wrote, “are unlikely to succeed on the merits.”