By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – After three-and-a-half hours of testimony in which an Itawamba County teen was asking to be moved from alternative school to his regular classes, Senior U.S. District Judge Neal Biggers was less than pleased to find the action being requested was already in the cards.
Biggers denied injunctive relief in the case of Taylor Bell, who’d served a seven-day suspension in mid-January and was assigned to alternative school for several weeks instead of classes at Itawamba Agricultural High School.
The punishment was imposed after the 18-year-old had posted a rap song on Facebook that used vulgar terms and accused IAHS coaches of inappropriate behavior toward students. The song also made firearms-related references that school officials took as threatening, which they deemed to present a strong possibility of “serious disruption” to the educational environment.
Bell and his attorneys were in court Thursday to ask that he be returned immediately to his former classes. To their and Biggers’ surprise, Itawamba County Superintendent of Education Teresa McNeece said Bell’s term in alternative school was already scheduled to end after today.
Biggers said he scheduled Thursday’s hearing with the understanding that the alternative-school term was not set to end soon.
“If [Friday] is the last day, we’re up here spinning our wheels,” he said.
If the case goes to trial in May as scheduled, Bell will be asking for an apology and $1 for the “irreparable injury” of having been sent to alternative school.
The crux of the school district’s argument is that Bell’s song constituted what a reasonable person would consider threatening, so there was reasonable concern that the result could be “serious disruptive” to the educational environment.
Both coaches named in the song testified that their educational approach has had to change.
Chris Rainey said he used to aspire to be a father figure to his students.
“I don’t feel like I can do that now,” he said.
Michael Wildmon said he took the threats in the song literally.
“After ballgames, I wouldn’t let them leave until I was in my truck,” he said. “I was scared.”
Bell’s argument is that because his song was produced independently of the school and because he did not introduce it to the campus, it constitutes free speech. He also insisted that the violent and vulgar lyrics were mere metaphors.
“I never intended any harm to anybody,” he said.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.