School district retracts policy, will pay 25,000 in legal fees to the ACLU

Scappoose student Marissa Harper didn't participate in dance this season, instead sitting out and waiting until the legal smoke had cleared. She faced positive and negative feedback along the way, but now it's all over -- Scappoose has settled the suit and removed the problematic policy.Nearly six months after originally filing suit against Scappoose School District, the Harper family has finally found closure to a legal battle that resonated in various media outlets around the state.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon announced on Tuesday, June 17 in a release that the school district had settled the suit, which was filed on Dec. 16, 2013, by Alicia Harper on behalf of her daughter Marissa, a student and member of the dance team at Scappoose High School.

The lawsuit involved a policy that strictly controlled actions on social media, barring the dancers and their parents from posting, commenting or otherwise communicating about the dance team without the permission of the teams' coaches.

The rules were broad, stretching far beyond the popular social media platforms of Facebook and Twitter. The policy also included email, text messages, Skype, MySpace, SnapChat, blogs, discussion boards and “any other form of social communication that could adversely affect the entirety of the team, coaches, or an individual.”

Violating the policy could bring about swift judgment – suspension or dismissal from the team, all dependent on the decision of the coaching staff.

When Marissa Harper and her mother saw the policy at a pre-tryout meeting in May of 2013, it was too much. The coaches handed out the packet and began to read it through, eventually reaching the social media guidelines. According to Alicia Harper, the coaches verbally stressed “if you don't think we will find out, we will find out” that kids or parents were discussing the team without their permission. At this point for the Harpers, the main concern was safety.

“Marissa turned to me and said ‘mom, does this mean I can't come to you if this or this happens,' and I said yeah,” said Alicia Harper.

It wasn't about being able to talk about the dance team on Facebook or Twitter, according to Harper. If a student was suicidal, she said, the team members wouldn't be allowed to go to their parents, the school administration or even the school counselors without risking banishment from the team.

Harper, according to the original lawsuit, brought her concerns to the Scappoose High School administration and was sent to the desk of Stephen Jupe, the Scappoose School District superintendent.

According to Harper, the meeting was cut short because of another meeting scheduled afterward.

“She felt like she was ignored,” said Anthony Stark, one of the lead attorneys representing the Harpers in the case.

Stark said he wasn't sure if the concerns from Alicia Harper had just fallen through the cracks or the district simply didn't see the concerns as warranting action, but eventually it came time to act. Lane Powell, the law firm partnering with the ACLU and the firm at which Stark is employed, made “several” phone calls to the Scappoose School District, and eventually sent a letter demanding a change in the wording of the dance team's social media policy, all without a response.

Jupe saw things a little differently. He said he didn't recall the meeting clearly, but remembered Harper bringing up the issue. However, the first time Jupe said the district “became aware of the seriousness of the issue” was in December when they were notified of the pending lawsuit.

“Once we filed a lawsuit, we got a response,” said Stark. “Once they engaged counsel it became immediately clear and [the policy] was withdrawn.”

Jupe was equally as clear about the immediacy of their actions once they had talked to their legal counsel, saying they “quickly decided” that there shouldn't be a different code of conduct for each team, but rather a district-wide policy. The dance team's policy was suspended for the remainder of the year until something new could be put in place.

According to Jupe, the district is working on a new policy with the help of their lawyers with the intent to have it in place by Aug. 1 when the fall sports seasons begin.

The majority of the time between January and May, when the suit was settled, came down to legal jargon to finalize the details. The arguments, though, weren't about money.

In fact, according to Stark, the suit didn't concern money at all. They might not have even needed to file a suit if the district had responded to earlier demands, and the dollar amount paid by the district – $25,000 – didn't go to the Harper family. It was donated to the ACLU to help cover legal fees.

But the belief that the case was “financially motivated” continued to spread. Marissa Harper began to receive “harsh criticism” from classmates, and at one point faced physical aggression from a fellow student, according to Stark, who said Marissa was struck in the head with a leather cushion and sustained a minor concussion. The Harpers complained to the school, but decided not to file a police report.

The Harpers also got positive support – “about 50-50,” according to Alicia Harper – once people realized the suit was about being able to express safety concerns.

In a release on May 16, the school district retracted the policy and apologized for its inclusion in the packet. The new packet, which has been available in the Scappoose High School office for the last several months, doesn't include a social media section.

“The new policy was intended to address concerns regarding sportsmanship, student speech, social media, bullying, and harassment,” the district stated in the May 16 release. “The restrictions on student speech, however, were unconstitutional.”

Jupe went a little further.

“It was not our intent to obstruct free speech at all,” he said.

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