Arkansas school district answers ejection lawsuit in case of teen who posted photo with assault-style rifle

Posted: May 18, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

Four of the six counts alleged against the Huntsville School District in a free-speech/expulsion case should be dismissed, according to a motion filed Thursday in federal court in Fayetteville.

Attorneys for the expelled student's mother, Jessica McKinney of Madison County, failed to state a legal claim for which relief can be granted, according to the court filing.

The four counts involved denial of "substantive" due-process rights, deprivation of First Amendment free-speech rights by Principal Roxanne Enix, defamation and the liability of School Board members as individuals.

Thursday's filings didn't address the first two allegations in McKinney's complaint: deprivation of the right to free speech by the school district and deprivation of due process because the school handbook's rules were vague and overbroad.

The student, identified as K.P., was expelled for posting a picture of himself on Instagram on Feb. 24 wearing a trench coat and holding an assault-style rifle. The picture was taken at his father's house in Rogers.

K.P. was trying to emulate a 1920s mobster holding a machine gun because he liked the "aesthetic," according to the lawsuit. He posted no words on Instagram with the photo.

The next morning, when K.P. saw some of the comments others had posted under the photo, he deleted the post.

One student had written: "When I drop my pencil, start shooting," according to the lawsuit. Another wrote "school shooter meme."

The Instagram post disrupted school the following Monday, Feb. 26, according to the lawsuit. Some teachers and students were afraid to go to school that day, and some parents were afraid to send their children to school.

The School Board met March 5 and expelled K.P., but he was allowed to take core courses online.

McKinney filed a federal lawsuit against the school district in late April seeking a jury trial, a reversal of the expulsion and punitive damages.

McKinney's complaint stated that the school district's expulsion decision "violates substantive due process because it was arbitrary and capricious, or irrational or motivated by bad-faith or ill-will."

"The expulsion at issue was reasonably and rationally related to the school administrator's vital mission to keep students and teachers safe and to maintain order and normal operations within the educational institution," according to the motion filed Thursday by the school district's attorneys, Charles L. Harwell and Matthew L. Fryar, whose offices are in Springdale.

Harwell and Fryar also took issue with the allegation that Enix deprived K.P. of his right to free speech.

"She acted in good faith with a sincere belief that she was doing what was best for her school, students and teachers, and a reasonable person in her position would not have known that her actions would violate K.P.'s clearly established constitutional rights," according to Thursday's motion. "Because Ms. Enix is entitled to qualified immunity for her actions, she is equally entitled to dismissal of Count IV."

McKinney's complaint alleges that Enix defamed K.P. during his expulsion hearing.

But McKinney's attorneys, Monzer Mansour of Fayetteville and W. Whitfield Hyman of Fort Smith, failed to state a claim upon which relief for the tort of defamation could be granted, according to Thursday's motion.

The same was true for the final count, according to the school district's lawyers.

"Each of these school board members acted in good faith with a sincere belief that they were doing what was best for the school in which the public has entrusted them, and a reasonable person in their positions would not have known that these actions would violate a clearly established right of the student," according to the motion. "Because the school board members are each entitled to qualified immunity, they are also each entitled to immediate dismissal of Count VI."

When reached by telephone Thursday afternoon, Harwell said he wouldn't comment on pending litigation.

Metro on 05/18/2018