School officials at a Tennessee high school allegedly had a student arrested for harassment after he calmly but insistently expressed disagreement with a school policy concerning how valedictorians are named, according to a lawsuit he filed on September 17 against the school and others.
According to the complaint, Trevor Sanders was “an exemplary, civic-minded [senior] with a 3.9 GPA” at Grundy County High School in Coalmont.
The Grundy County school board voted in December not to allow students who were graduating early—after completing only three years of school past eighth grade—to be ranked in the Top 10 of the graduating class. But then, the board reversed its decision for last school year, allowing the school to name a graduating junior as valedictorian—a girl who happened to be the daughter of a teacher at the school.
This reversal couldn’t be justified, in the eyes of Mr Sanders, and he expressed his opposition to the abrupt policy change in several ways, including posting a video on Facebook about how the change had cheated at least one of his classmates out of an opportunity to be named valedictorian and speak at the graduation ceremony.
Students, of course, disagree with school policy decisions all the time, but that’s not the story here.
The junior girl’s parents felt that Mr Sanders’s opposition to the policy change was being expressed in a way that harassed their daughter. And since one of the parents was a teacher at the school, Deidre Helton, the school’s principal, sided with the girl’s parents and punished Mr Sanders by authorizing a three-day in-school suspension.
The parents, identified in the complaint as Daniel and Jamie Richardson, also swore out an affidavit that resulted in Mr Sanders being arrested. In its entirety, the affidavit stated:
Trevor Sanders has been harassing my daughter at school and putting post [sic] on facebook [sic] regarding the situation at school. My daughter has gotten valedictorian and I want this to stop. I have a copy of the video for review.
The affidavit quoted in the complaint doesn’t seem to contain any actual charges of wrongdoing. Whether the video was harassing in any way is a matter for a jury to determine, but police arrested Mr Sanders anyway, forcing him to spend a night in jail and be subjected to unkind remarks from police officers.
All charges of harassment against Mr Sanders have been dropped, News Channel 9 (ABC affiliate) reports. But the lawsuit concerns the allegedly false (really, non-existent) charges in the affidavit, as well as how school officials and police made the arrest happen.
Mr Sanders claims that at no time did he even address the junior girl; he questions not only the substance but the veracity of any statements made calling for his arrest.
He is suing for $1 million on the grounds that the school and police violated his First Amendment rights of free speech as well as his Fourth Amendment rights of being free of unreasonable seizure.
As far as the graduation ceremony was concerned, GCHS decided to name 11 valedictorians last year and sidestep the issue entirely. Mr Sanders still spent an awful night in jail at the hands of the police, based on charges that seem to have little grounding in fact.