FITCHBURG, Mass. – When students at Montachusett Tech were asked to suggest improvements they would make to their school, they were told their answers would be confidential.
But when five male students gave answers that school officials called racist, that confidentiality disappeared.
The boys were identified by the teacher who collected the questionnaires, then brought to the principal's office and suspended for three days.
The American Civil Liberties Union thinks it's a case of thought policing. It's now suing the school on the boys' behalf for violating their freedom of expression, due process and right to privacy.
"You cannot discipline people for what they think," Ronald Madnick of the ACLU of Massachusetts said.
Plus, they say, the school betrayed the boys' trust.
"If the administrators and the teachers tell you, 'Put down how you feel and it's anonymous', then they turn around and suspend you, are you going to trust these people in the future?" Madnick said.
In court documents, school officials argue they suspended the boys for "behavior causing a dangerous condition," though they did not specify what the boys said.
Support for the school is coming from an unlikely place — other students, many of whom are offended by what they heard were the boys' racist answers.
"In a place like school, it shouldn't be there because it'll just cause more problems. And we have enough problems at school anyway," Jess Bleakley, a student, said. "We don't need that."
"They shouldn't have been able to express themselves in a way that made other people look bad," Roxanne Similia, another student, said.
School officials refused to comment on the case. Legal experts say while the boys have a solid case based on invasion of privacy — so too does the school, particularly in a court system sensitive to school violence.
"Courts are going out of their way to give school administrators as much leeway as possible to discipline what goes on in schools," Paul Martinek of lawyersweekly.com said.
If the school loses, it will have to expunge the students' records and reimburse one for tuition elsewhere — a costly lesson on freedom of speech and invasion of privacy.