For a high school freshman, it began with the lesson that citizens can use their voices to inspire change. But it ended with the student teaching DeKalb County schools that free speech is for students too.
Keegan Brooks was a freshman at Chamblee Charter High School last year and had heard complaints about the way the school’s principal was managing the school. He made stickers calling for her firing, which administrators deemed a “school disturbance.” He was given one day of in-school suspension, according to a lawsuit his family filed in February in federal court against the DeKalb County School District.
Almost a year after the sticker drama, Brooks and his family have settled the lawsuit, heralding it as a win for students’ free speech. As part of the settlement, the district is paying the family $45,500 “to compensate (Brooks) exclusively for pain and suffering and for attorneys’ fees.” In addition, the district agreed to amend its student code of conduct and train principals on new rules regarding what constitutes a “disruption” at school, according to documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“I learned how you can make a difference, and just because the school administration does something doesn’t mean it’s right,” said Brooks, now 14 and a sophomore at Chamblee. “There’s nothing wrong in expressing your opinion if you feel like there’s something that should change.”
Brooks said he was inspired to make the stickers because he had heard complaints about the way then-principal Rebecca Braaten was managing the school, which enrolls about 1,700 students. According to an AJC article last year, she faced allegations that she ran the school through fear and intimidation, prompting complaints from parents and students. Brooks had learned about freedom of speech and freedom of petition in his Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics class, he said, and was inspired to voice his opinion, he said.
Brooks, who was 13 at the time, printed 36 stickers that said “Fire Braaten,” with a picture of the principal’s face imposed over an American flag, according to the lawsuit. He put a sticker on his phone and handed some out to friends last October, he said, before a teacher noticed and told an administrator.
He was called into a disciplinary office and initially threatened with a week of suspension, according to the lawsuit. An assistant principal later punished him with one day of in-school suspension, on the grounds that the stickers constituted a “school disturbance.” The assistant principal told Brooks’ family that Braaten would “would make the final call” on the matter.
“I really thought that it was kind of ridiculous, and I felt it was within my rights to have one of these,” Brooks said, “and that it was unfair to be punished just for expressing an opinion with criticism.”
The district denied the family’s appeals to wipe the suspension from Brooks’ disciplinary record, prompting the lawsuit, Brook’s father Russell Brooks said.
“I was impressed that this was something that he cared about; that he was trying to make an impact at his school,” Russell Brooks said. “It seemed to be a reasonable response to the concerns about what was going on at the school at the time.”
Braaten left Chamblee in the middle of last school year. The district said she was reassigned at her request. She still works for DeKalb schools, as an “administrator on special assignment.” She did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
According to the settlement documents, in addition to repaying the family for the cost of legal fees, the district will amend its district-wide student code to tighten what qualifies as “disruption” at school. Under the new rules, administrators can only punish students for a “material and substantial disruption.” All principals and “hearing officers” must also receive training on the change.
The day of suspension was also expunged from Brooks’ record.
In a statement, the district said it “takes seriously its obligations to both protect the rights of students while ensuring a safe and effective learning environment for them.
“To that end, the district has provided updated training to all school leadership on its districtwide Code of Conduct, as well as how to appropriately balance these interests.”
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