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Advocates say punishment over Brownsville Area 'Harlem Shake' video violates rights

| Friday, March 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Two national organizations are asking Brownsville Area School District to expunge the suspensions of 13 high school students who made a “Harlem Shake” dance video during school and later posted it on the Internet.

The suspensions violate the students' right to free expression, said the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania in a letter sent to the district Thursday.

“Dance is a form of expression. It's protected by the First Amendment,” Vic Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said Thursday.

Students involved in the Feb. 18 filming of the 27-second video were given two-day suspensions by Superintendent Philip J. Savini the following day. The tape was made in a classroom while a substitute teacher was present.

The “Harlem Shake” is a dance fad that has grown; about 260,000 videos replicating the dance moves have been posted on the Internet.

District Solicitor James Davis said the suspended students did not follow instructions from the substitute teacher so administrators determined the students' actions violated the disciplinary code.

“We don't frame the issue as an issue involving a dance,” Davis said. “We have a teacher who is trying to maintain proper decorum in the classroom.”

School board President R.W. “Rocky” Brashear called the video “vulgar.”

Out of 96 calls he received about the student suspensions, 92 callers were “appalled” by the video, he said.

The props and vulgar movements were “in very poor taste” and offensive.”

“I'm not in favor of lifting the suspensions,” Brashear said.

As school suspensions for “Harlem Shake” videos began occurring around the country, the censorship coalition started tracking them, said Acacia O'Connor, coordinator of The Kids' Right to Read Project with the coalition. More than 100 students nationwide have been suspended for “Harlem Shake” videos, according to the coalition website.

The suspensions are being issued for “not a lot of good reasons” and hindering students' freedom of expression, she said. The students did not cause any disruptions or damage any school property, Walczak said.

The organizations teamed up to send Brownsville a letter and they could seek legal recourse if the district refuses to lift the suspensions, O'Connor said. She had not heard a response from the district by Thursday afternoon.

Davis did not know if administrators would expunge the out-of-school suspensions — which have been served — from the students' records.

The students could face future problems, such as the loss of a college scholarship, O'Connor said.

Parent Kathy Broadwater said her sophomore daughter, who was suspended for the video, will not be permitted to take part in certain activities, including the National Honor Society or homecoming court, for the rest of her high school career.

“To a high school girl, this is all very important,” Broadwater said.

She said the district has denied requests to expunge her daughter's suspension.

Other school districts around the country could be receiving similar letters, O'Connor said.

Suspensions for “Harlem Shake” videos have occurred in Michigan, Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Louisiana, according to the coalition's compilation.

Thursday was not the first time the ACLU has contacted Brownsville.

The district settled a federal lawsuit last June after the ACLU sought a temporary restraining order in April on behalf of the mother of an eighth-grader to prevent the school from punishing the girl for exercising her right to free speech. The student wanted to remain seated while her classmates stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, according to the suit.

High school students in a Gay Straight Alliance seeking to have an announcement read over a loudspeaker and to wear T-shirts to observe a National Day of Silence on April 20 were denied permission by a Brownsville administrator last spring. The ACLU asserted the group's right to commemorate the day of awareness.

In 2010, the district reached a financial settlement with a teacher who was suspended in connection with photos depicting her, fully-clothed, with a male stripper that were posted on the Internet. Directors initially imposed a 30-day suspension after the photos from a bachelorette party were forwarded to administrators. The ACLU stepped in, the suspension was cut short and the teacher received back pay for 19 days she missed.

Renatta Signorini is a staff write for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-837-5374 or rsignorini@tribweb.com.

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