Can schools punish students for off-campus racist, sexist rants?

Courtesy of the Jordan High School Alumni Association

It remained unclear Wednesday whether a Jordan High School student caught on video making racist and sexist remarks will face disciplinary action.

District leaders have been told that Durham Public Schools has the authority to “address” such incidents but would not confirm whether that includes punishment.

“Our legal counsel has advised us that we may address incidents that occur outside of school if they have a substantial impact on the school community,” DPS spokesman Chip Sudderth said. “However, laws that protect student privacy restrict us in what we can communicate about such incidents.”

Sudderth’s comments appear based on state law 115C-390.2., which says school boards “may authorize suspension for conduct not occurring on educational property, but only if the student’s conduct otherwise violates the Code of Student Conduct and the conduct has or is reasonably expected to have a direct and immediate impact on the orderly and efficient operation of the schools or the safety of individuals in the school environment.”

However, Jordan students were out of school for the summer when the video became public so it did not have a “direct and immediate impact” on the school’s operation or safety. Sudderth had not heard back from DPS’ legal counsel by the end of the day Wednesday, so declined to discuss whether the law applies.

Citing Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Sudderth also declined to discuss whether the student has or will be disciplined. FERPA is a federal privacy law that shields from public view student records such as transcripts, report cards, disciplinary records and other such documents.

School board member Minnie Forte-Brown said she isn’t sure the school district can take any action against the student.

“You want people to be respectful of each other, but you can’t legislate morality,” she said.

Meanwhile, the News & Observer reported last year that three students at Leesville Road Middle School in Raleigh were disciplined after a video surfaced showing them making derogatory remarks about different racial and ethnic groups and chanting “KKK, KKK.”

The students were disciplined under a Wake County Public School System policy that warns students their “conduct at any time, place, or cyberspace, on or off campus” can be subject to punishment if it severely disrupts the school, The News & Observer reported.

The school district did not say what punishment the students received.

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) faced a similar incident in 2015 when students on a school trip to the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania posted a photograph on Instagram of two female students waving what looked like Confederate flags.

A line under the photo read “South will rise.”

Tom Forcella, who was superintendent at the time, told reporters the district did not have a policy that addresses social media posts outside school, except for cyber bullying.

CHCCS spokesman Jeff Nash said Wednesday that the district doesn’t “discipline students for behaviors that occur off campus, however we may be forced to take action if those behaviors become a distraction on campus.”

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Although the video with the Jordan student became public during summer break, it threatens to disrupt school when classes start

Some students are vowing to boycott football games and lacrosse games if the student, who plays both sports, is allowed on those teams this season.

“People are pretty upset, and they want something to be done,” Student Body President Aminah Jenkins said. “Our main concern is not his political views; it’s his views toward women and his use of the N-word that’s the main concern. That’s what’s got people so upset.”

The student in the video also professed his love for President Donald Trump.

District leaders reached Wednesday said the video is shocking and upsetting.

“The words were damaging, hateful and hurtful and there’s no place for that in our nation or Durham Public Schools,” said school board Chairman Mike Lee. “I think we can use this as a learning opportunity about the dangers of social media and how it can affect students’ lives.”

Lee noted that DPS will begin to use restorative practices this school year to address conflicts. The practice address students’ conflicts by repairing relationships, eliciting remorse from offenders and forgiveness from victims.

“I think it starts with recognition of the hurt and pain his words have caused and a sincere apology to the Jordan and Durham community,” Lee said.

He said school administrators and the students’ coaches will decide whether the student participates in athletics this year.

Jordan Principal Susan Taylor sent a robo call to parents Tuesday to notify them about the video, which she said does not “reflect the values of our faculty, staff, student body, community, or the impacted families.”

“When I was first made aware of the video, several actions took place and will continue,” Taylor said. “The actions were designed to investigate, address the behavior, plan for healing, and take steps to ensure that Jordan is a school in which all students are and feel welcome.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645