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Tumwater students rally around peer suspended for Twitter post

Olympian 2013 file: Principal Jeff Broome checks on the princesses before the Tumwater High School Homecoming student assembly, October 25, 2013. Some students are calling for Broome to reverse a decision he made in suspending a student on Monday over a social media post.
Olympian 2013 file: Principal Jeff Broome checks on the princesses before the Tumwater High School Homecoming student assembly, October 25, 2013. Some students are calling for Broome to reverse a decision he made in suspending a student on Monday over a social media post. Staff photographer

Scores of Tumwater High School students are rallying around a classmate who was suspended for five days after posting a message deemed offensive about principal Jeff Broome on social media on Monday.

“I had been hearing about it all day; it was a pretty big deal,” said ASB president Seth Stauffer, 18. “A lot of students thought (the suspension) was way overboard.”

Mason Zabel, 17, a junior, said he was upset at the principal after being told he was likely going to be put on the “no pass” list for accruing too many late arrivals. He said he wouldn’t be able to get a hall pass during class hours or that he’d have to be chaperoned if he left during class time.

“I tweeted something kind of mean,” Zabel said. “I tweeted, ‘Eat my (expletive), Broome.’”

Within a couple of hours, that tweet landed him in the principal’s office.

“He told me I was suspended for five days for sexual harassment,” Zabel said.

The teen posted about the suspension on Twitter, and it took on a life of its own. That post, along with Zabel’s original post which was later deleted, was shared by scores of students. Many began posting #freeSimba, because “Simba” is Zabel’s nickname, calling for school officials to reverse the decision.

“I don’t think they should have done anything,” said Mackenzie Arnold, 16, a Tumwater High student who is in the Running Start program at South Puget Sound Community College. “I get it’s a foul opinion, and yes, he used slang, but I feel it’s our First Amendment right. We were given these rights from the Constitution for a reason.”

Broome declined to be interviewed about the incident.

Tumwater School District spokeswoman Kim Howard said the district couldn’t comment on or discuss an individual student’s discipline, for privacy reasons.

But she said the district has a policy that permits students to file grievances on suspensions that are less than 10 days.

As for the students’ complaints that school officials are violating people’s right to free speech on social media, Howard said the district disagrees and courts have supported schools in similar cases.

“Indecent speech is not permitted by the First Amendment in the context of public schools,” she said. “There are protections for public schools that are different than the other settings.”

Zabel said he realizes he did something wrong, but he doesn’t think the punishment was appropriate. He believes being asked to take the post down, and going to after-school detention would have been reasonable. He said he might appeal.

“I just can’t believe I got suspended for five days for it,” Zabel said. “… That’s taking away from my education. That’s a full week of school that I got taken away for saying, like, four words.”

Tumwater senior Logan Greenwell, 17, said social media causes a lot of drama at his school. As a joke, he tweeted that Broome also should suspend a student for taking up two parking spots, and added a photo of the student’s truck and utility trailer. Greenwell doesn’t think Zabel should be forced to miss five days of school.

“The way I see it is I think … that was a ridiculous tweet, and it was a ridiculous punishment,” Greenwell said. “I think both sides just went way over the top.”

Stauffer, the ASB president, also thinks the punishment was too harsh.

“I think the tweet was kind of impulsive, and (Zabel) wasn’t really thinking about it,” he said. “I don’t think it needed to be met with a five-day suspension. … It only caused more tweets, so it really didn’t help anybody.”

Stauffer said some students are talking about starting a petition against the principal over the issue.

He said there is a lot of confusion over what type of rights or free speech protections students have at school.

“I think some people are under the impression that Twitter is totally separate and it’s totally covered by the First Amendment,” Stauffer said. “And that’s why some students are surprised when they end up getting reprimanded for the decisions they make directly through the school.”

Olympia High School principal Matt Grant said Tumwater isn’t alone in its social media drama. It has caused problems at his school just up the road.

“It’s kind of an important topic that’s going around nationwide,” Grant said. “There’s a lot of social media issues coming up.”

He said time, place and manner are the three things he considers when investigating a complaint on social media.

“If it involves a disruption at school, then we get involved,” Grant said.

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433, @Lisa_Pemberton

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