Scappoose School District Withdraws Policy and Settles ACLU Lawsuit

Affiliate: ACLU of Oregon
June 17, 2014 12:00 am

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The ACLU Oregon announced today that it has settled a lawsuit against the Scappoose School District on behalf of high school student and her mother over a policy that had prohibited any communications about the school’s dance team by team members or their families.

Under the terms of the settlement, the district agreed that its social media policy had violated the free speech rights of students and their parents. In response to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the school district withdrew the policy in January and worked with the ACLU to finalize an appropriate settlement that included a written apology sent in a recent newsletter to the school community.

The speech and social media policy had been instituted for the 2013-14 Dance Team season intending to promote sportsmanship and curb bullying. However, the over-reaching language of the policy had prohibited dance team members and parents from any communication made “verbally or written via social media” regarding any aspect of the dance team or face punishment. Marissa Harper, a dance team member for two previous seasons, and her mother, Alicia Harper, had refused to sign the policy because of concerns that such broad language would violate free speech rights. Their attempts to work with school officials to address those concerns failed, so the Harpers turned to the ACLU for help.

“I was especially concerned that the policy wording prohibited a team member or parent from bringing serious problems, such as abuse, to the attention of school administrators,” said Alicia Harper, mother of Marissa. “I am proud of my daughter for standing up for a principle we believe in. She sacrificed being on the Dance Team, an activity she loved, to do the right thing.”

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Harpers in December 2013 after attempts to communicate with school officials about the policy were ignored. In the meantime, Marissa was facing harsh criticisms from classmates for standing up for her rights. One student even physically assaulted her because of her position.

“It is ironic that in challenging a policy aimed at promoting sportsmanship, Marissa was treated by many in her community in a most appalling and un-sportsman-like way,” said ACLU of Oregon Legal Director Kevin Díaz. “I hope the Scappoose school community comes to understand the important service Alicia and Marissa Harper provided. We all lose when public policies diminish free expression rights. It takes a lot of courage to stand up against school authorities.”

Once school officials realized the seriousness of the issue, they were quick to withdraw the problematic policy and cooperated in reaching an agreement to settle the lawsuit. In a recent electronic-newsletter to the entire school community, school officials expressed “regret for the former policy” and the desire to “move forward in an environment where student speech is appropriately supported.”

In addition to rescinding the flawed policy and communicating with the school community, the Scappoose School District paid $25,000 to the ACLU Foundation of Oregon as partial compensation of attorney time expended to file the lawsuit. Cooperating attorneys Darin Sands, Anthony Stark, and Whitney Button of the Lane Powell law firm in Portland volunteered their services to the ACLU to represent the Harpers.

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