SoFla Teenaged Girl Suspended for Protesting School Bullying

At DeSoto County High School in Arcadia, freedom of speech doesn't extend to silence.

Amber Hatch, 15, sued its principal, its dean of student, and the local school board last week in Fort Myers federal court, claiming she was suspended last year after school administrators tried to coerce her from participating in the national "Day of Silence" -- and then suspended her when she did.

The hoopla began with a letter.

According to the lawsuit, Amber dispatched a letter last March to the school's principal, Shannon Fusco, asking for permission to join in the "Day of Silence" on April 20 to protest bullying and discrimination against gays on school campuses. Every year, tens of thousands of students join the silent and peaceful protest, which has become the nation's largest student-led action.

Fusco's response, however, was short: nuh-uh. "Peaceful protests are against district policy," she said.

Undeterred, Amber appealed the decision three times to the school board, trying to assuage concern that her actions would disrupt class.

"Allowing us to participate in the DOS will do no harm," she wrote district administrators in an email. "Our goal is to make students aware of bullying and try to stop it... Allowing students to participate gives a chance to spread awareness."

The district denied the appeal.

On April 19 -- the day before the Day of Silence -- Amber was brought out of class by Fusco, the lawsuit says. Fusco "warned" Amber that if she came to school the next day "and was quiet, there would be disciplinary consequences."

Fusco then called Amber's parents. Fusco told them to keep Amber home from school the next day to "avoid problems" and "consequences."

But Amber wouldn't be denied. She showed up to school wearing a T-shirt that read: "DOS April 20, 2012: Shhhhh."

This made administrators very upset. After Amber's third period, she was called to the school's office, where the dean of students, Ermatine Jones, asked Amber whether she "wanted in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension."

Amber asked why she was being punished.

"Mrs. Fusco told you not to do this."

Amber said she knew her First Amendment rights -- and the school had no right to take punitive action against her.

That notwithstanding, she was put inside the "intervention room, isolated from her peers and classroom activities for the rest of the day," the lawsuit said.

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Terrence McCoy