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Students harshly punished for 'Start slavery again' petition sue school district, claim they were joking

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The parents of four high school students punished for starting an online petition to bring back slavery have filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming their constitutional rights were violated.

In the lawsuit, filed on Friday, parents and their lawyers argued that the Park Hill School District outside Kansas City, Missouri, moved too quickly and punished the students too harshly for something that was intended as a joke, WDAF-TV reported.

The student who started the Change.org petition was expelled from the school, while three others who posted incendiary comments on it were suspended for the remainder of the school year.

What happened?

The incident began on a bus ride to a football game in September, when a biracial student and a black student started talking about slavery and needing a job, according to the outlet. The lawsuit reportedly claims both of the students believed they were "joking."

The biracial student, who is black and Brazilian, then typed out a petition on Change.org that stated, "Start slavery again."

Three other students on the bus, reportedly of varying ethnicities, joined the discussion by commenting on the petition, saying, "I love slavery," "I hate blacks," and "I want a slave." The black student reportedly liked and shared the petition.

Shortly after, the petition was posted on social media and soon caught the attention of parents, teachers, other students, and eventually administrators. And before long, the petition had garnered national attention.

Park Hill South High School sued by parents of students that made racist petition www.youtube.com

All five of the students involved were freshmen at the school and members of the freshman football team.

In response to the students' actions and growing backlash within the community, the district decided to swiftly hand down harsh punishments, effectively ending four of the students' freshman years. The fifth student, who is black, was not punished.

The district still stands by its decision today, telling WDAF in a statement, "As this lawsuit describes, we took prompt, decisive action to enforce our policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment, and uncivil behavior. The suit shares that we expelled one student and suspended three others for 180 days. We will be able to share further details when we respond to this lawsuit in court."

What else?

In the lawsuit, lawyers appealed to the students' young age and immaturity in arguing that the punishment didn't fit the offense.

"Fourteen-year-olds sometimes unwisely shoot their mouths off, instantly regretting it but causing no harm, no disruption," Arthur Benson II, who is representing the students, said, according to NBC News. "But here it was adults who unwisely over-reacted, causing the disruptions and they are now trying to strip these boys of their entire ninth grades."

Lawyers also reportedly argued that the district's efforts to improve equity amid growing diversity made it difficult for ninth-graders to "navigate their conduct between the pulls of a peer culture that valued racialized bantering and the adult expectations of a school code that prohibited most forms of racial or ethnic descriptions and banter as punishable offenses."

The district reportedly requires staff to undergo diversity training but does not have that requirement for students.

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