Originally created 05/14/98

Students who protested sue to overturn suspension



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Five students disciplined for protesting the cancellation of an Indigo Girls concert at Irmo High School want a federal judge to overturn their eight-day suspensions.

"It's like picketing a segregated restaurant and being charged with felony riot," said Steven Bates, director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

U.S. District Judge Michael Duffy in Charleston was to hold a telephone hearing today on a request for a preliminary injunction to block the suspensions, said LaVerne Neal, the ACLU's program coordinator.

"This is America. Students have a right to protest," ACLU lawyer Andy Brumme said.

The suit also seeks unspecified damages and lawyers' fees from Dennis McMahon, superintendent of Lexington-Richland District 5, and high school principal Gerald Witt. It was filed on behalf of Chester Hicks, Megan Collier, Carla G. Gray, Kaitlin Spangler and Elizabeth Carney.

"We're following the discipline code in the punishment," school district spokesman Buddy Price said Tuesday.

Witt canceled last Thursday's concert after parents complained, some of them because the Indigo Girls are lesbians. Instead, the duo sang at Columbia's Township Auditorium that afternoon. It was free to high school students.

About a dozen Irmo High students were suspended after they walked out of class during the time the concert would have been held, Price said. He did not know an exact number.

Between 50 and 100 students were out of class briefly during the protest, he said. Students were told that those out less than 10 minutes would be marked tardy, while those who stayed out longer faced three-hours of detention on a Saturday, Price said.

The spokesman would not discuss specifics of what the students did to earn the longer suspension, but said it was more than just cutting class. Witt spent an hour encouraging them to return, Price said.

Witt refused to reinstate the students following a meeting Monday, but agreed to start the appeal process to the school board, Bates said.

"The suspensions will be over before their appeals every reach the school board," Bates said. "They will have been denied eight days of education for an offense that warrants no more than a three-hour detention."

One of the students, Megan Collier, is the daughter of Irmo High School history teacher Tommy Collier.

Collier said he allowed her to take part in the protest after he understood the maximum penalty would be the three-hour detention hall.

The students were suspended under a school rule that prohibits students from directly disobeying an administrator's command, Collier said.

"This is not like they were a threat to the school or public safety," he said.