Tweeted 'Terroristic Threat' Lands Another Teen In Trouble
from the it's-like-the-word-'threat'-has-lost-all-meaning dept
Here we go again. Another teen fires off a post on social media platform and ends up being portrayed by school administrators as “terroristic.” This particular incident somehow finds the teen in question unharassed by law enforcement and unthreatened with a lengthy prison sentence, but it still contains lots of baffling details.
Tyson Leon, 16, was indefinitely suspended from school sports in late August after sending a tweet that school officials said constituted a terroristic threat.
He denies threatening anyone, and in U.S. District Court in St. Paul on Tuesday, attorney Meg Kane argued that the suspension is a violation of her client’s constitutional rights.
Leon wrestles and plays football for a Shakopee, MN high school. Over a weekend before the football season kicked off, he sent the following tweet.
“Im boutta drill my ‘teammates’ on Monday.”
Even those with only a passing familiarity with full contact sports will recognize that “drilling” means tackling someone hard. Even those with no sports experience would probably fail to see this as any sort of threat. However, those with vivid imaginations and panicky hands to wring saw Leon’s tweet as something much more serious. Leon was hauled off the bus on the way to football practice and taken to the administrator’s office for questioning.
Head coach Jody Stone and [athletic director] Janke met the boy in a conference room, closed the door and began interrogating him, according to Kane and Leon’s family.
“Neither … Janke nor Stone informed T.L.’s parents of their intent to interrogate T.L.,” the lawsuit said. “T.L. did not feel free to leave because of … Janke and Stone’s position as school officials.”
During this informal chat that Leon was compelled to attend, the two school officials raised allegations about the student’s possible “chemical use” during a football retreat, along with confronting him about the tweet.
A later meeting involving Leon’s parents dealt only with the tweet.
On Aug. 26, during a meeting with Leon and his parents, Stone and Janke produced a printed copy of Leon’s tweet about drilling his teammates, the lawsuit said. They said nothing more about the allegations of chemical use. A letter to the family dated Aug. 29 didn’t mention the chemical use either, but said Leon’s behavior violated school and league rules and that he was indefinitely suspended.
Leon was indefinitely suspended from the football team (although this wasn’t clear at the time). The school claimed this was a result of cumulative violations and not because of his tweet. Leon has had three previous suspensions from the team, for a verbal altercation, a fight that occurred off school grounds and “chemical use” at a party in January. His parents didn’t fight any of these previous suspensions, feeling Leon needed to suffer the consequences of his actions. However, they did object to the latest one, which was seemingly tied solely to Leon’s tweet.
The school’s logic for Leon’s latest suspension was laid out by the district’s attorney, Carla White.
On Tuesday, White pointed out that the suspension resulted from Leon’s fourth violation and that he and his family received a letter after his third violation reminding them that violations are cumulative and could cost him his eligibility.
The fourth violation apparently being the “threatening” tweet that contained no threat. As is detailed above, the letter sent to Leon’s parent made no mention of the more recent alleged “chemical use.” But, just in case anyone feels compelled to argue the latest suspension had nothing to do with the tweet, White’s further statements make that crystal clear.
“Every single school administrator who read [the tweet] believed that he was threatening harm,” White said.
That doesn’t say much for the administrators. Even the judge hearing the preliminary arguments had trouble buying that claim.
The judge questioned why, if administrators truly believed that the tweet was a threat, police weren’t called to the school.
Good question, especially considering it takes very little for most schools to call in law enforcement, whether its non-threatening “threats” being posted on social media or rumors of a water balloon fight.
White countered the judge’s question by reaffirming the administrators’ collective terrible judgement.
“They did believe it was a threat,” White said. “They did believe it was going to happen on Monday. They took care of it.”
Leon’s family sued the school for violating Leon’s constitutional rights, but it appears to have been settled after a meeting by both parties with the judge. The school has reinstated Leon to the wrestling team (of some importance to the student — reportedly he’s being scouted by a local college) but held onto his suspension from the football team.
This is probably the best possible outcome (barring a striking of his fourth suspension over a non-threatening tweet) considering Leon’s attorney’s statements show she was relying on a couple of dubious legal arguments. First, she claims Leon’s participation in extracurricular sports is a “property right,” but most schools view these as purely optional parts of the educational experience, something that often requires participants to follow extra rules the rest of the non-participating school body is exempt from. In fact, schools are under no federal obligation to provide interscholastic sports programs due to the extra financial burden it can place on schools for uniforms, travel, salaries, etc. So, from both the student side and the administrative side, these sports programs are clearly optional and in no way resemble a “right.” Leon may have been concerned about his future scholarship chances, but three previous incidents indicate his desire for future sports participation was often overridden by his questionable judgement.
Second, Meg Kane claims the school violated rights by accessing “private” social media accounts. This is a tough sell in most courts. Even IF Leon’s accounts were set to “private,” anyone receiving his tweets, posts, etc. could easily disseminate them further. A “private” social media account is pretty much a misnomer and attempting to claim the school violated his privacy by accessing public postings (even if these were limited or filtered in any way) is a non-starter. There’s a better argument to be made that rights were violated by the school’s response to his protected speech, but there’s not much to be had going the privacy route.
But, given all this, the question still remains: why did the school treat this tweet the way it did? It took a hard line, claiming it was a “terroristic threat” and questioned Leon without informing his parents. It also never informed the police, meaning the administration didn’t view this as an actual threat, no matter what its legal representation says.
And if it didn’t consider it to be a true threat — either at the point of interception or after hearing Leon’s explanation of the tweet — why did it insist on following through with the suspension? Was it a way to punish him for the alleged “chemical use” it couldn’t nail down conclusively but still believed occurred given Leon’s disciplinary track record?
No matter what the rationale, the entire incident makes the Shakopee administration look ridiculous and even slightly vindictive. It clearly had nothing to do with this “terroristic” tweet and yet it followed through with the disciplinary actions and didn’t bother clearing up any misunderstandings until it was facing a lawsuit. That’s no way to run a school.