The Cape Elizabeth School District will appeal a judge’s decision to block a high schooler’s suspension while her free speech lawsuit proceeds.

 Aela Mansmann speaks to Cape Elizabeth students who walked out of school last month to protest the suspension of Mansmann and two other students who complained about how the school handled sexual assault allegations. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Aela Mansmann, 15, has alleged that school administrators violated her free speech rights when they suspended her for posting notes in a girls’ bathroom saying there was a rapist in the school.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is representing her and her mother in federal court as they sue the school district. District Judge Lance Walker ruled last month that Mansmann did not have to immediately serve her suspension while the legal battle is pending.

The school district filed a notice of appeal to the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on Friday morning. No other documents or written briefs have been filed yet. Melissa Hewey, an attorney for the school district, released a written statement from the school board.

“We felt compelled to take this step for the Cape Elizabeth School Department and for all schools in this state,” the statement says. “Schools must have the ability to address statements by students that are likely to spread fear and alarm or to harm others as was the case with the statement involved in this case. The precedent created by the federal court’s decision will have a chilling effect on school officials’ efforts to keep schools safe and will deter schools from acting promptly to identify and remove dangers or threats from the schools. Ensuring the safety of all of our students is our paramount goal and in order to support this goal, we cannot let this decision stand without challenge.”

Alison Beyea, the executive director of the ACLU of Maine, also provided a brief statement via email.

“The district court was right to block the school from suspending A.M. for First Amendment-protected speech,” Beyea said. “We’re confident the appeals court will uphold that ruling.”

In September, Mansmann, an advocate against sexual assault, and two other girls posted sticky notes in two bathrooms that read, “There’s a rapist in the school and you know who it is.”

Mansmann said the notes did not refer to a specific person, and were posted to draw attention to the issue in general. She had previously gone to school administrators to discuss how they handle assault allegations.

She also spoke with the Press Herald about student concerns regarding the district’s response to allegations of sexual assault. The same day a story was published about the concerns and the notes in the school bathrooms, Mansmann was issued a three-day suspension.

The two other girls also were suspended for leaving notes in bathrooms – though for not as long as Mansmann, according to the lawsuit – but have not spoken publicly about their cases.

School officials said the notes constituted bullying and that over the course of an investigation they determined that a male student felt he was being targeted by the message and experienced ostracism from his peers and was forced to miss school.

The ACLU then filed a lawsuit alleging school officials violated Mansmann’s First Amendment rights and her protection from retaliation under Title IX, which is part of a federal law that prevents gender discrimination and sexual violence in education.

 

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