School board reinstates expelled student, but teen not back in class
LANCASTER, Ohio — The city’s board of education has voted to allow a student to return to school after he was expelled because of comments on his personal Web site. However, as of yesterday, Thomas Siefert, 17, had not returned to class.
The teenager was suspended March 29 for 10 days and later expelled because of the Web site, which included images of teachers and a message board with negative postings aimed at Lancaster High School and administrators.
Janice Siefert, Thomas’ mother, said her son was told of his suspension and likely expulsion while in a closed room with three principals from Lancaster High, one from a local junior high and two sheriff’s deputies. Thomas was not asked if he wanted to call his mother. Janice Siefert said the administrators also told her son that they were going to press criminal charges and pursue civil litigation.
Superintendent spokesman Scott Burke told First Amendment Center Online that he knew nothing of Thomas’ mother’s allegations. Lancaster High Principal Bob Richards could not be reached for comment about the allegations.
The expulsion letter, addressed to Thomas and his mother, was received on April 21. Two days earlier, Lancaster High officials ordered Janice Siefert to bring in all of Thomas’ schoolbooks and told her that Thomas’ locker had been cleaned out.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio stepped in earlier this month, saying the expulsion violated the teenager’s free-speech rights. The ACLU represented Thomas at a May 13 school board meeting, much of which was conducted in executive session. The meeting ran until after midnight, when the board agreed to let the junior return to school.
As of yesterday, he had not returned to school, said Janice Siefert. Burke, who is in charge of communications for Lancaster City Schools said, “Thomas is free to walk back into school.”
The family’s attorney and a lawyer for the school system plan to talk about options for making up missed work, Janice Siefert said. Thomas could try to make up work through computer-based classes, attend summer school or even transfer to a county district.
“If he were to go back now, he’s going to be completely lost,” his mother said.
Janice Siefert said more litigation was possible, although she declined to be specific.
“I think some damage has been done, and I’m not sure how that can even be made up to Thomas,” she said.
The Associated Press reported that Richards said he was waiting to see what the next step is and welcomes Thomas back.
“I’m not in this business to hold grudges,” he said. “We’re ready to talk about an education plan to get him back up to speed. Once they get done talking, I can do that.”
The Web site, www.lancasternewsletter.com, has been taken down. Thomas said he did that to avoid getting in further trouble. It was online from May 2003 until the end of March.
First Amendment Center Online intern Courtney Fryxell contributed to this story.