Parent sues Cherry Creek School District over son's expulsion following social media post

Student was expelled from Cherry Creek High over reference to violence against Jews

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The father of a high school student who was expelled for his "exterminate the Jews" social-media post is suing Cherry Creek Schools, claiming his son's rights of free speech and due process were violated.

A student identified as “C.G.,” who attended Cherry Creek High School at the time, had posted a Snapchat photo of his friends at a local thrift store trying on hats and wigs. One wore an oversized hat with an American flag pattern, another wore a blond wig and a third wore what resembled a foreign military hat from the World War II period, according to the complaint in the case.

C.G. captioned the photo, “Me and the boys bout to exterminate the Jews.”

The school suspended and later expelled the student for that September social media post based on school district policies that his father's attorneys allege are unconstitutional. School officials also based the disciplinary actions on policies that were applied incorrectly, according to the complaint. The case was filed Nov. 26 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

“C.G. intended the caption to be humorous; he believed it was so outrageous no one could possibly take his words seriously,” the complaint argued. The caption is patterned after a popular internet meme where phrasing begins with “me and the boys.”

A few days after the Snapchat post, Principal Ryan Silva wrote in a letter to the community that Cherry Creek High “does not tolerate hateful speech or actions” and that the school's responsibility is “to provide a place where students of every race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation feel safe, valued and supported.”

The complaint seeks, in part, to readmit the student to Cherry Creek High or another district high school and prevent the district from enforcing “unconstitutionally vague and overbroad policies.”

'Learning experience'

In September, over the weekend, one of C.G.'s connections on Snapchat showed the photo to her father, who called law enforcement, according to the complaint.

After that, according to the document, the following events ensued:

A patrol officer responded to C.G.'s house and, within 90 minutes of being contacted, determined there was no threat to anyone. The student posted an apology on Snapchat: “I'm sorry for that picture it was (meant) to be a joke.”

The apology was posted within hours of the original photo on a weekend, likely after law enforcement responded.

School officials learned of the photo, and Silva sent an email — apparently to school staff — that Sunday.

“Our primary function is not to police the community,” the email said in part. “If we can make a case that there is a nexus to school, we can address a situation that happened away from school. In this case, I feel the learning environment has been impacted.”

The father of someone who saw the post spread it to others in the Jewish community. On that weekend, one Creek student's parents contacted Silva and asked the school to use the incident as “an opportunity for respectful dialogue.” The parents also urged the school to use the chance to “address the rise in hate speech” in the Cherry Creek community.

On Monday, Sept. 16, C.G. was escorted from class to a dean's office and suspended for five days. Hours later, Silva emailed a letter to the community notifying it of the post and that the school was “investigating to determine the impact on the school environment.” A dean told C.G.'s mother Sept. 18 that the suspension was extended another five days to accommodate a review process for expulsion.

After Silva's email blast, three more parents contacted the school, asking officials to use the incident to promote tolerance. Cherry Creek High used a school period Sept. 23 to discuss “how hate speech affects people.” One parent pressed officials to take disciplinary action.

C.G. and his parents tried to engage officials about working together to make the incident “a learning and a growth experience.” The parents sent officials an apology letter Sept. 23 from C.G. that said he had since talked to Jewish community members about the post's impact, along with a letter from the parents.

Improper discipline alleged

Despite the post taking place off campus, C.G.'s suspension was based on an alleged violation of District Policy JICDA(13), which prohibits verbal abuse on school grounds, according to the complaint.

“In violation of (district policy) JKD-1-R, C.G.'s parents were not given notice of a time and place they could meet with (district staff) to review the suspension,” the complaint read.

The student's suspension was extended through Oct. 21 (a fall break occurred during mid-October).

At an expulsion hearing Oct. 7, Assistant Principal Kevin Uhlig testified that the Snapchat post caused “extreme outcry of concerned community members and students … over fear to come to school,” according to the complaint, which argues that no student expressed such fear.

The hearing officer found that JICDA(13), the policy cited for C.G.'s suspension, had not been violated but that C.G. did violate other district policy.

Cherry Creek Schools has a policy called JKD-1-E, which allows for expulsion or suspension for behavior on or off school property that is “detrimental to the welfare or safety of other pupils.” Another JICDA provision can lead to suspension or expulsion for behavior on or off school property as well.

'Defendants caused impact'

The complaint argues that school officials caused “nearly all” of the post's impact on the school environment, saying that only one student's parents contacted the school before Silva's email to the community. It's not clear how wide the reaction to the post at school or on social media was before Silva's email.

In a general statement about the case, Abbe Smith, school district spokeswoman, said: “We dispute the allegations in the complaint and intend to vigorously defend against these claims.” 

Haddon, Morgan and Foreman — the law firm serving the family — did not respond for comment by press time.

The complaint contends that district policies infringe on First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights, arguing they violate rights of speech and due process.

“Countless constitutionally protected activities may fall within the permitted zone of discipline,” the complaint read.

The complaint seeks damages, for which a monetary amount is not given.

The complaint also appeared to argue that the post had some positive effect, saying, “C.G.'s post furthered CCHS's educational mission as it served as a springboard to encourage a real conversation between students and faculty about offensive and hurtful speech.”

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