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Plum officials: District won’t inhibit ‘constitutionally protected speech’

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James Knox | Trib Total Media
The student-led protest at Plum High School Monday April 27, 2015.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
Dylan Kinlough, 15 sophomore organizer of the Monday April 27, 2015 student-led protest at Plum High School.
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James Knox | Trib Total Media
The student-led protest at Plum High School Monday April 27, 2015.

Just a few hours after student protesters at Plum High School left for the day with the promise to return Tuesday morning, school board members huddled in closed-door discussions.

The meeting ended at about 9:20 p.m. Monday with the board not commenting, but member John St. Ledger saying it would make a statement at an open meeting 7 p.m. Tuesday at Oblock Junior High School.

“You’ll find out (Tuesday),” solicitor Bill Andrews told reporters.

The closed-door meeting capped a day of protest by Plum students who felt their First Amendment rights have been infringed upon.

Police and administrators on Friday cautioned students against publicly discussing an ongoing sexual abuse investigation at Plum High School. Police have arrested two teachers and charged them with having sex with students. Both teachers and a third colleague also are charged with witness intimidation. Police and administrators told students they could be arrested for “irresponsible” and “immature” talk, tweets, texts, emails, or posts to Facebook.

The district and police walked back those statements Monday after a day of student unrest and threats of court action by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.

“The district will not prevent or inhibit any individuals from engaging in constitutionally protected speech,” said Superintendent Timothy Glasspool in a letter the district released Monday. Glasspool did not respond to requests for comment.

The superintendent entered the high school meeting room where school board members had gathered Monday evening but left before the session started at 7 p.m.

Board members Joe Tommarello and Tom McGough did not attend.

The ACLU said the district’s statement was “more cryptic than we would have liked,” but the group said it accepted the clarification of the issue, according to ACLU-PA legal director Witold Walczak.

Walczak and ACLU officials had given the district until noon Monday to clarify its statements. The district issued Glasspool’s statement just before noon.

Between the ACLU’s threat of court action and the district’s response, some students staged a protest over what they perceived to be a violation of their First Amendment free-speech rights.

Fliers placed over the weekend invited students and parents to meet outside the high school Monday morning.

“It’s freedom of speech for us to give our opinion,” said one sophomore who joined students gathered outside the high school about 7:15 a.m. “We shouldn’t feel like criminals for expressing our opinion.”

By the noon deadline, more than three dozen protesters had converged.

Another sophomore who arrived at school about 10 a.m. on a bus from Forbes Road Career and Technology Center said he initially wanted to see what the protest was about.

“Teens are ignored a lot,” he said. “You have to listen to your superiors to an extent, but when they abuse that power, it becomes a tyranny.”

Students said administrators said the participants would be marked as having skipped class that day. School officials did not respond to requests for comment.

One sophomore’s mother came to the school to try to talk her son into going to class.

“I told her I’m done with this school district,” said the student, whose mother tried to talk him and others into returning to school. “I’m not going. I’m going to fight for this.”

Megan Guza and Karen Zapf are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Reach Guza at 412-380-8519 or [email protected]. Reach Zapf at 412-871-2367 or [email protected].

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