Federal judge upholds Huntington High suspension

By Justin Anderson | Mar 31, 2009

CHARLESTON – A federal judge has denied a father's attempt to block the 10-day of his son, a Huntington High School student, for displaying a forbidden slogan on his hands.

Joseph David Brown, for his son Anthony Joseph Brown, had filed motions in federal court for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction against the Cabell County Board of Education, Superintendent William A. Smith and Huntington High Principal Greg Webb.

Brown asked federal judge Robert C. Chambers to block administrators' handing down a suspension against Anthony for writing "Free A-Train" on his hands with a felt-tipped marker.

The slogan refers to Anthony Jennings, who is currently jailed on charges of armed robbery and attempted murder of a Huntington police officer. Jennings is accused of robbing two people at gunpoint in Huntington on March 4, then shooting police officer Ryan Bentley during a subsequent foot chase.

Jennings was known on the street as "A-Train."

Anthony Brown, a freshman, argued that he wrote the slogan on his hands as a show of solidarity with Jennings, whom he said stuck up for him when other students were picking on him.

But school officials say the slogan, which also appeared on t-shirts worn by students, only exacerbated existing tension at Huntington High School over gang activity.

Chambers ruled that school officials' duty to maintain order and safety at the school trumped Anthony's First Amendment rights.

"Plaintiff has not shown that he is likely to suffer irreparable harm which outweighs that of the school if an injunction were to be denied," Chambers wrote in his March 30 order. "Additionally, he has not demonstrated that the public interest favors the issuance of an injunction."

The suspension occurred on March 17. According to court records, Anthony asked an assistant principal during lunch if he could use the restroom. At that point, the assistant principal noticed the writing on the boy's hands and told him to wash it off or face a 10-day suspension.

Anthony initially did wash the words off his hands, but later rewrote them. When the assistant principal again warned Anthony, the boy refused to wash his hands and was suspended on grounds of "disruption of the educational process."

Officials said the high school has been having problems related to gang activity. One gang, called the Black East Thugs, was known to threaten and assault students.

Webb, the principal, testified that BET gang members had beaten up a student who had moved from New Jersey because he refused to join the gang. Webb said gang members assumed that since the student came from New Jersey, he must have been involved with a gang there.

Gang members assaulted the student on March 3, Webb said. The next day, the day Jennings was accused of shooting officer Bentley, gang members threatened to shoot two fellow students in the back of the head. Six students who were members of BET were expelled, Webb said.

These incidents have left Huntington High students apprehensive, court records say. Jennings, a former Huntington High student, was believed to be associated with the BET gang. Jennings was a student until February 2009.

Following his arrest, some students began wearing t-shirts bearing the "Free A-Train" slogan. Students became concerned because they believed the t-shirts were being worn by BET members.

Students complained about the t-shirts. One student cried for fear of gang members coming to the school and starting trouble. Other students asked to leave class early. Some parents refused to send their children to school because of the t-shirts, according to court records.

Administrators agreed to ban the slogan because it was disrupting students.

Chambers, in his order, says there is no evidence that Anthony Brown has ever been involved with BET.

"The message on his hand, however, clearly fell within the school's ban of the 'Free A-Train' slogan and came at a time when administrators reasonably believed students were worried about gang activity and support for Anthony Jennings," Chambers wrote.

U.S. District Court case number: 3:09-0279

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