Students' Facebook hoax leads to legal fight

Three Clovis West students thought it was the perfect prank -- a fake Facebook page for Principal Ben Drati.

The teens didn't make a serious effort to hide the comical intent of the page, which first surfaced in October. One entry, for example, told students that if they disliked the mega-hit vampire flick "Twilight," they should "get the hell out of Clovis West."

Drati, however, was not amused. In a district document provided to the students' families, he contended the Facebook page stole his identity and threatened his authority at Clovis West.

So Clovis Unified School District officials launched an investigation, even using the school's automated telephone notification system to solicit tips.

Once they identified juniors Jacob Fleener and Matt Gross and sophomore Nick Morris as the perpetrators, they had school police officers apprehend the boys in class on Feb. 10 and read them their Miranda rights.

The district suspended all three and took steps to expel them from the northeast Fresno campus.

All three teens are top students who wrote letters of apology to Drati once they were caught. And their parents didn't object to the initial five-day suspensions.

But after the district pressed for expulsion, they hired attorneys.

Over several weeks while the district and families wrangled over the issue, the teens remained out of school.

On Friday, nearly a month after they were first suspended, and after a series of hearings, the district abruptly announced that the matter had been settled and that the teens could return to Clovis West.

But two of the families, at least, first want a promise that their teens will face no criminal charges or further discipline, said Monrae English, a lawyer for the Morris and Gross families. English said she believes the district changed its stance after receiving questions from The Bee.

District officials acknowledge that while students have First Amendment rights, the district also has the responsibility to maintain "a safe school environment free of harassment for both students and employees," district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said.

The use of social media continues to raise thorny issues for educators, Avants said.

"It is our hope that our community will recognize the damage that can be caused when students attempt to undermine the authority of school leaders and work with us to educate students on appropriate use of the wide variety of technology resources available to them," she said.

There's not a lot of guidance for school districts in these matters, in part because technology is moving faster than the law, said Stephanie Papas, a consultant for the state Department of Education in Sacramento.

What is key, Papas said, is whether Clovis Unified could prove that the Facebook page contained objectionable material that is "materially disruptive to the educational environment."

The court record is mixed, but judges generally side with students if their attorneys can show that Internet pranks were clearly satire, experts say.

In a similar case decided last month in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Pennsylvania, the court found that another student who created a MySpace parody of his principal from an off-campus computer four years ago had his First Amendment rights violated by his school district when he was suspended.

The court said a picture of the principal lifted from a school Web site was not a theft of district property, as the district contended.

In that case, the parody made fun of the principal's large size suggesting that the principal was a "big steroid freak," been drunk a "big number of times" and that the number of drugs he had taken was "big."

But in another case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found a student was not protected by the First Amendment when he put up a Web site threatening a math teacher.

The court found that Web page, which asked "why should she die?" and went on to request money "to help pay for the hit man" disrupted the educational process because three substitutes needed to be hired when the math teacher went on medical leave, causing a serious disruption to students.

A comment on the fake Facebook page that Drati found highly offensive asked whether someone would play hide and seek with the principal. The response was "only if I'm drunk."

That response, English said, came from a site visitor. But Drati believed the Facebook page threatened his job security.

"I was concerned that my credibility as a leader on campus with students, parents and staff was seriously being compromised," he said in a three-page written statement made to a board reviewing the suspensions.

The Clovis West students say they only meant to have some silly fun at their principal's expense -- and that their Facebook page was clearly a parody.

"We just thought it would be a joke," Nick Morris said. "People knew it was fake."