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Legal experts question prosecuting South Fayette boy for recording bullies

Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Christian Aaron True Stanfield pauses for a photo in Bridgeville Monday, April 14, 2014.

A look at the law

Pennsylvania requires all parties of a conversation to consent to be recorded unless they're in a public place, but the expectation of privacy is unclear for students in public school classrooms, said Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard Law School.

“Pennsylvania courts have recognized that (students) can have a privacy interest, although it might be limited based on the need of the school to secure a safe environment,” Hermes said.

One-on-one conversations in a school might have an expectation of privacy, experts said, but taunting someone in front of a teacher and other classmates would not.

“Once you're willing to say something in front of a room full of 20 people, by definition it's no longer private,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.

Some places where it is legal to record (audio or video) someone without their consent in Pennsylvania: Sidewalk, public park, zoo, public school bus, restaurant, airplane.

Some places where it is illegal: Over the phone, private property, public bathroom.

Source: Tribune-Review research

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Monday, April 14, 2014, 11:21 p.m.
 

A South Fayette High School student convicted of disorderly conduct for attempting to record his bullies shouldn't have been prosecuted, legal experts said on Monday.

“Disorderly conduct, in a practical sense these days, is a catch-all for disposing of a case,” said Downtown attorney Phil DiLucente, who is not involved with the case.

The charge of disorderly conduct includes harassing, annoying or alarming another person but often is used improperly, DiLucente said.

“What is alarming to me is the police's limited knowledge of the law. They usually know procedure pretty good, but they really don't know a lot about charges,” he said.

South Fayette police Lt. Frank Kurta charged sophomore Christian Stanfield, 15, with disorderly conduct on Feb. 12 when his mother confronted school administrators about students bullying her son on a seven-minute recording he took on his iPad one day earlier. The school's principal, Scott Milburn, initially told police he believed he had a “wiretapping incident.”

Stanfield's mother said he was diagnosed with a comprehension delay disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and an anxiety disorder. He told South Fayette District Judge Maureen McGraw-Desmet that he made the recording to show his mother the extent to which he was being bullied, according to a transcript of the March 19 hearing.

“I wanted her to understand what I went through,” he told the judge. “I really was having things like books slammed upside of my head.”

McGraw-Desmet did not return calls seeking comment. South Fayette police Capt. John Phoennik declined to comment.

South Fayette school Superintendent Bille P. Rondinelli said she could not discuss what happened.

“The district is precluded from discussing student matters,” she said.

Jim Jordan, an antibullying expert and author who speaks at schools around the world, said it appears that Stanfield's mother, Shea Love, followed proper protocol for reporting her son's bullying to the district.

Love, 40, an Air Force veteran, sent Christian's teacher several emails about his complaints between October and February, according to testimony from the hearing.

“I would be curious to see if the school documented any investigation after the mother complained,” Jordan said. “It doesn't seem like the district did anything, since it continued, and this boy was forced to stick up for himself by recording them and getting proof.”

Stanfield's attorney, Jonathan D. Steele, said he anticipates winning an April 29 appeal of McGraw-Desmet's ruling. He is considering filing a federal lawsuit against the district for not reacting to the bullying claims and for retaliating against his client.

“Districts have an obligation once they know about bullying,” he said.

Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

 

 

 
 


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