Bad tweet, worse response

The Charleston County School District and Board of Trustees made it clear that they don’t like the kind of language a School of the Arts student tweeted.

Of course they don’t. It’s language no thoughtful people should like or find appropriate.

But in an effort to make a point, the district and board reached way beyond their authority. And in trying to justify their questionable actions, they brazenly and without explanation denied the public pertinent information.

At issue is a School of the Arts senior, Ashley Patrick, who, while at home, tweeted that she was fed up with a junior for making remarks in one of their classes. The tweet included a popular rap song lyric with a racially derogatory term. The junior is black. Some consider the lyric to be threatening.

Clearly, it was offensive. Offensive language. Offensive sentiment.

But was it an offense that demanded the repeated intervention of district officials, who insisted that her school-imposed five-day suspension wasn’t adequate?

Maybe, if the tweet had disrupted education at school or if the tweet had been sent on school equipment on campus.

But neither was the case. And Ashley Patrick wrote a letter of apology to the junior, assuring her that she meant no harm. She served her five-day suspension in March and reportedly hasn’t been in trouble since.

Reporter Diette Courrégé Casey tried to put the incident in broader context. She asked the school district a few key questions about how many students have been suspended or expelled for a posting on social media. Has the school district administration ever before appealed a ruling of a constituent school board to the county school board, seeking a harsher penalty for a student’s misbehavior? Why did the school district classify the offense as a level 3 offense? Who made the decision to appeal the constituent board’s decision, and why?

The district has refused to answer even though the data are public information.

What we do know is the school imposed a five-day suspension. A district administrator decided to refer the case to the North Charleston Constituent Board, which upheld the suspension.

But the district intervened again to say the punishment was inadequate. Thus, the county school board heard the appeal, upheld the suspension and added to the student’s punishment.

While the North Charleston Constituent School Board did not intend for Miss Patrick to miss her graduation or school prom, district officials said that she must.

The story is further complicated by the fact that the mother of the junior is Lisa Herring, a high-ranking district official.

When Mrs. Casey inquired about whether Miss Patrick’s case was being treated differently because of Lisa Herring, she received no answer, nor an explanation as to why. (Ms. Herring emailed our reporter to say that neither she nor her daughter wanted to be part of the story.)

Miss Patrick asked that her hearing before the county school board be open to the public. She was denied that option.

If the district and the school board aren’t trying to keep the lid on something, they’re fooling a lot of people.

Ashley Patrick apparently needed to learn some things. Don’t tweet things that could be hurtful to other people. Don’t say them, even if they’re song lyrics and “everybody is saying them.”

Unfortunately, she learned another lesson as well, and that is that people in authority sometimes use their positions to promote their own agendas.

It’s all right for Charleston County school officials to shrug off the freedom of information law or free speech issues, but other people need to toe the line.

Some lessons are well learned.

Others are shameful.