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School district debates student's punishment for tweeting N-word

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A high school senior faces being kicked out of school and missing prom and graduation after using the “n-word” in a tweet regarding a classmate.

However, a lawyer for Ashley Patrick claimed that punishment is harsher than usual because the victim’s mother is an associate superintendent with the Charleston County (S.C.) School District.

In a February vocal class at School of the Arts in Charleston, Patrick became annoyed that a black junior student was speaking during the lesson.

Patrick, who is white, later tweeted at home that if the junior “makes one more got (sic) damn remark in Roger's class tomorrow . . . (expletive) will drop.” The Post and Courier added that she linked to an image macro of a white girl closing her eyes and crossing her fingers, with the superimposed text reading “I wish a n***a would.”

Photo via Instagram

Though Patrick claimed not to use the n-word in conversations, she was amused by the image, which she'd seen on Instagram, and tweeted it. Her Twitter account was set to private, though did not know the the junior had started following her while the account was still public.

Nine days later, Patrick was removed from class and suspended for five days. Her case also needed to go to the school district's Office of Student Placement due to the incident's seriousness.

Patrick's mother, Virginia, and her attorney, Dwayne Green, said they were told by office staff  that the initial suspension was appropriate. However, Lou Martin, the associate superintendent overseeing secondary schools overruled the staff's recommendation.

The district instead wanted to remove Patrick from the school and send her to an alternative program called Twilight. That's a computer-based classroom in many of the district's high schools. It's not targeted at those recommended for expulsion, but instead those with less-serious behavior issues, such as truancy.

The Patricks and Green appealed the office's decision to the constituent school board. Its chairman said Patrick showed remorse (she said she did not intend to hurt the junior student and wrote a letter apologizing the day she was suspended). The constituent school board felt the five-day suspension was enough and unanimously agreed she be allowed to return.

The school district, however, did not agree. It deemed Patrick's tweet tantamount to “intimidation,” equating its seriousness to arson or assault. It appealed the constituent school board's decision to the county board. Patrick is likely to find out her fate Wednesday.

Patrick and Green believe the case is being treated differently because of who the junior's mother is. Lisa Herring is the district's associate superintendent for academic and instructional support.

Though Patrick and Green don't believe Herring is directly involved in the decisions in the case, Green claimed it was "an extreme conflict of interest." It is reportedly the first case in over five years where the district pushed for a sterner punishment than the constituent school board agreed upon.

Last week, superintendent Nancy McGinley said the case was being handled the same way as any other disciplinary matter, though she had not been involved.

Free speech is another factor in the case. An attorney for the S.C. Press Association told the Post and Courier Patrick's free speech rights might be violated unless the school district could show the tweet caused "substantial disruption of the educational environment."

Since returning to school March 14, Patrick has stayed out of trouble. She claimed she did not think her tweet could be considered offensive or threatening. The school changed her schedule so she is in a different vocal class. She's also been told she cannot go to prom, which takes place this Saturday.

“Any senior, their end goal is to walk at graduation, and that's my main concern,” said Patrick, who's been accepted to the University of South Carolina in Columbia and plans to become a physical therapist. “I just want to walk with my class that I've been with for six years, and some since kindergarten.”

Whether the school board will allow her to do that remains to be seen.

Photo via meriamali/Instagram