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School Discipline Upheld Over 'Stab' Tweets, Knife Possession

A federal appeals court has upheld the discipline of a Michigan high school student who allegedly tweeted a threat to stab another student and brought a steak knife to school.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, unanimously held that the student identified as C.Y. was not denied her 14th Amendment right of due process of law over her suspension and expulsion from school.

According to court papers, C.Y. had a falling out with another student, identified as A.B. On Feb. 21, 2012, C.Y. allegedly issued a message on Twitter aimed at A.B.: "stab stab stab. Going to stab stab stab you today to see your insides, ya ya ya."

A.B. went to administrators at Lakeview High School in the Lakeview school district when she saw the tweet. Another student told administrators that C.Y. had shown off a steak knife she brought to school that morning and had tucked into the back of a binder. That student also showed administrators some text messages from C.Y. that suggested she had brought a knife to school, though in one text C.Y. said, "I wasn't actually going to stab [A.B.]."

The school's vice principal looked for C.Y., but she had left school. The vice principal then phoned C.Y.'s mother. There was disagreement about whether the vice principal suspended C.Y. over the phone, or the next day.

In a meeting with school officials, and in a statement she wrote, C.Y. admitted sending out the tweets mentioning stabbing, though she suggested they were not directed at anyone, but that she knew A.B. would see them. C.Y. denied brining a knife to school and acknowledged her text message that said she had no intention of stabbing A.B.

C.Y. was suspended for possessing a knife at school, and the Lakeview school board voted to expel her on the same grounds.

A federal district judge awarded summary judgment to the school district on C.Y.'s due-process claim. In the 6th Circuit, C.Y. argued that the purported suspension over the phone did not give her a chance to respond to the charges. She also argued that it was a matter of dispute whether she was suspended for more than 10 days. (She contends the over-the-phone suspension, which the district contends didn't happen, led to an 11-day suspension before she was expelled.) 

Under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1975 decision in Goss v. Lopez, suspensions of 10 days or less demand certain minimal due-process requirements, such as oral or written notice of the charges and a chance to respond. Under Goss, suspensions longer than 10 days and expulsions require more formal due-process procedures, though that decision did not spell them out.

In its Feb. 12 decision in C.Y. v. Lakeview Public Schools, the 6th Circuit court panel said it did not violate due process for school officials to suspend C.Y. over the phone the day of the incident, if that's what happened. C.Y. had left school early that day, and her suspension hearing was held the very next day, the court observed.

Meanwhile, C.Y. challenged her expulsion hearing on due-process grounds, because some witness statements and the vice principal's report were withheld from her. But the 6th Circuit said C.Y. was informed multiple times that students had made the allegations about the tweets and the knife.

"Whether or not C.Y. was provided copies of the statements and report, the record leaves no doubt that she received an explanation of their contents adequate to prepare her defense, and thus her due process rights were not infringed," the appeals court said. 

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