A School of the Arts senior who used the “n word” in a tweet about a black junior may be kicked out of school because the junior's mother is a high-ranking official with the Charleston County School District, the senior's lawyer said.

The pending case

School of the Arts senior Ashley Patrick initially was suspended from school for five days, and the district required her case to go to its Office of Student Placement because of the “serious nature of the offense,” according to a letter to her from the district.

That office, which helps ensure consistency in the penalties for offenses, heard the case but took another five days to let Patrick know its recommendation, which was that she not be allowed to return to School of the Arts. Patrick missed five days of school while the office made its decision.

Patrick's mother, Virginia Patrick, and her attorney, Dwayne Green, said they were told by Office of Student Placement staff that they thought the five-day suspension was appropriate, but Lou Martin, the associate superintendent who oversees secondary schools, disagreed and trumped their recommendation.

The district's position was that Patrick should be removed from School of the Arts and sent to Twilight, an alternative, computer-based classroom for students with behavior problems. Patrick said Martin told the board that it would be a shame to minority students if she were allowed back.

The Patricks hired Green and appealed the office's decision to the constituent school board, which didn't meet for another three days. In total, Patrick was forced to miss 13 days of school.

Constituent school boards have the authority to expel or transfer students from schools for crimes or misbehavior. Their decisions can be appealed to the county school board.

James Perry Jr., chairman of the constituent school board, said Patrick showed remorse, and his board felt the five-day suspension was a sufficient punishment. Perry said it was unusual that Martin was involved in this case; usually, he said, the board hears from principals or assistant principals.

The school district disagreed and appealed the case to the county school board. Patrick has been back at School of the Arts since March 14, and she said she's not gotten into any trouble.

Diette Courrégé Casey

District officials consider the tweet a serious act of intimidation, but the 18-year-old senior and her attorney disagree and say they haven't been treated fairly in the controversy. The mother of the junior is an associate superintendent who oversees the district's behavior and disciplinary programs.

The dispute centers on issues of race and a possible conflict of interest, but it has tentacles that touch on the right to free speech, how postings are perceived on social media, and whether the district's punishment fits the offense.

If the district has its way, senior Ashley Patrick will not attend the prom or walk with her class on graduation day. She likely will learn her fate Wednesday.

The problem started in February in a vocal class. Patrick said she was annoyed because the junior was talking during the lesson.

Patrick later tweeted from her iPhone at home that if the junior “makes one more got (sic) damn remark in Roger's class tomorrow … (expletive) will drop.” Patrick posted a link to a picture of a young white girl squeezing her eyes shut and crossing her fingers. The text on the photo read “I wish a nigga would,” an expression used in urban and hip-hop culture. The phrase can be found in rap songs, comedy sketches and as a Twitter hashtag.

Patrick, who is white, said she didn't think about the fact that the target of her words was black, or that it could be considered racially offensive or threatening. She said she had no intention of hurting the junior, and she has apologized.

A School of the Arts assistant principal decided Patrick would be suspended for five days. District leaders have indicated that's not enough. They characterized her actions as “intimidation” and asked for the strictest penalty possible, equivalent to that of arson or assault.

Patrick and her attorney, Dwayne Green, said her case is being treated differently because of who the junior's mother is — Lisa Herring, the district's associate superintendent for academic and instructional support. Herring is one of the highest-ranking minority leaders in the school district.

“It's an extreme conflict of interest when the daughter of an administrator is involved and a different punishment applies,” said Green, who is black.

They said Herring didn't appear to be directly involved in the decisions made in Patrick's case.

Herring wrote an email to The Post and Courier on Friday from her personal email account, stating neither she nor her daughter wanted to be a part of this story.

Superintendent Nancy McGinley refused an interview Monday, but last week she said she was aware of the case but hadn't been involved in it. The case was being handled the same way as any other disciplinary case, she said, and she was concerned then about talking about it because of the privacy rights of the involved students.

She said she was surprised to hear Patrick was considering talking about the incident publicly.

“It's shocking to me (there's) any justification,” she said of the tweet.

Top district staff wouldn't answer questions about the incident Monday.

Erica Taylor, the district's executive director of strategy and communications, released a written statement saying the issue was a disciplinary matter involving a minor student, and it was confidential.

“In any case, both federal law and our (district) policy prohibit us from discussing or disclosing information about students without the permission of their parent or guardian,” Taylor wrote.

Issue of free speech?

The school district could be violating Patrick's free speech rights unless there was some substantial disruption of the educational environment by that tweet, said Jay Bender, an attorney for the S.C. Press Association. Although the district might contend her tweet in itself was disruptive, Bender said it takes more than the naked statement for it to be considered disruptive.

“They can't just punish a student for speech that the administration doesn't like that occurs off of school grounds,” he said.

This appears to be the first case in at least five years in which district officials have pushed for a harsher penalty than what the constituent school board wanted. District officials plan to ask the county school board on Wednesday to remove Patrick from School of the Arts.

The district is appealing the decision of the North Charleston (District 4) Constituent School Board, which unanimously agreed that Patrick should be able to return to School of the Arts. All of the members on the constituent school board are black.

Two county school board members, Cindy Bohn Coats and Chris Fraser, said they couldn't remember another case during their tenure in which the district had appealed a constituent school board's decision. Coats joined the board in 2010 while Fraser did so in 2008. If anyone appeals, it's usually students looking for leniency, they said.

Appropriate punishment?

Green said School of the Arts has been under scrutiny for its racial diversity admissions and enrollment figures, so this case is an opportunity for the school district to make an example of someone to show they're either pro-diversity or tough on perceived racial insensitivity.

“But they've had to break their own polices and rules to do so,” Green said.

Patrick and Green disagree with the way Patrick's offense has been categorized. The school district described Patrick's actions as the most serious of its three kinds of offenses, a level three.

By definition, level three offenses are when the students' actions either meet the criteria for criminal conduct or when previous interventions/consequences have become ineffective, according to the district's Code of Conduct. These kinds of violations “significantly disrupt the learning environment or pose a direct and serious threat to the safety of oneself or others,” according to the district.

Patrick's Feb. 13 tweet from her personal Twitter account at home doesn't fit those criteria, Green said.

“This is a one-time post that they're elevating to criminal conduct,” he said.

No police report was filed in the incident.

District leaders want to remove Patrick from School of the Arts and send her to Twilight, an alternative, computer-based classroom for students with behavior problems. Patrick served a five-day suspension and has been back at school since March 14 without incident, she said.

Social media

Patrick had changed her Twitter profile settings to private, which meant she had to approve anyone who followed her. She didn't realize that the junior had started following her when her account was public.

Privacy settings don't affect the fact that posts on social media are considered a form of publishing, said Von Bakanic, an associate professor of sociology at the College of Charleston.

“It's kind of like putting it on the front page of the paper,” she said. “If you say things about people that are inflammatory or untrue, not only could you get kicked out of school, you could get sued. The lesson here is 'Watch what you post.' ”

Bakanic said there's been a learning curve for those posting on social media sites, and teens don't have as much experience with the potential consequences for words.

Parents haven't had enough experience with the technology to warn their children about ramifications for their posts, and they often don't teach social media etiquette, she said. Teens perceive social media interactions as different from those that are face to face, she said.

“We have a cultural lag,” she said. “We haven't caught up with our own technology.”

The tweet

Patrick can't remember the specifics of what the junior said in class, but she said she felt aggravated. Patrick said she doesn't use the “n word” in conversation, but she'd seen the photo with the word on Instagram, thought it was funny, and tweeted it.

Nothing happened initially, but nine days later, Patrick was called out of class and suspended.

It's not been easy since then, she said. School of the Arts changed her schedule so that she's not in the junior's vocal class. Patrick's new class is mostly freshmen instead of seniors. She earned a spot in All-State Chorus, but her suspension prohibited her from going to the statewide weekend performance. And she's been told she can't go to the prom.

Patrick would be the third member of her family to graduate from School of the Arts. She's been at the school since sixth grade, and she previously attended Ashley River Creative Arts.

“Any senior, their end goal is to walk at graduation, and that's my main concern,” Patrick said. “I just want to walk with my class that I've been with for six years, and some since kindergarten.”

She's been accepted to the University of South Carolina in Columbia, and she plans to major in exercise science and become a physical therapist.

The day she was suspended, she wrote a letter apologizing to the junior.

“When I wrote this, I did not think about how my words could affect you,” she wrote. “I never meant to cause you any fear of being in harm or danger, and I am sorry I have made you feel this way.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.