Sophie B. Wright lawsuit over graduation privileges stalled by move to Federal Court

Sophie B. Wright lawsuit over graduation privileges stalled by move to Federal Court
Sophie B. Wright's Napoleon Avenue campus (Photo source: NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A lawsuit over a school’s decision to bar some students who participated in a senior prank last month from walking in their upcoming graduation was stalled Monday (May 6), when a last minute request from Sophie B. Wright’s attorney moved the case from Civil District Court to Federal Court.

Sophie B. Wright senior Lyric Fernandez sued the school after she was told she would not be allowed to participate in her graduation, senior prom, senior picnic and activities on her last day of school. Fernandez and some of her classmates were also suspended from school for five days following the prank, but the school later rescinded the suspension and said most of students would be permitted to walk at graduation after completing community service. However, according to the lawsuit, Fernandez was one of seven students who was told they would still be banned from the ceremony.

The 18-year-old filed the lawsuit after her suspension was lifted, claiming she was not given the chance to appeal her punishment for the prank, which school officials said involved water guns, eggs, vinegar, mustard and water balloons being used on the Uptown campus. Sharon Clark, Sophie B. Wright’s principal said two teachers and a student were hurt after slipping in water. The school’s attorney, Tracie Washington, said the prank caused damage to public property.

Officials previously said they warned students multiple times not to participate in the prank.

According to court documents, Washington maintains that Fernandez’s claims are not valid because the activities she is barred from participating in are not protected by law.

“[Fernandez filed] this action because she was not allowed to participate in senior activities, including the Senior Prom, the Senior Picnic, and the Senior Commencement Ceremony. These activities are not constitutionally protected fundamental rights; they are privileges forfeited by bad behavior,” Washington’s motion states.

In her lawsuit, Fernandez sought to get an injunction issued against her school to reverse their decision to ban her from graduation, which is scheduled for Monday, May 13. By moving the lawsuit to federal court, the matter will likely not be settled before the ceremony, according to Nuestra Voz (Our Voice) a local education advocacy group.

The group released a news release Tuesday, stating the school was employing “stall tactics,” because they do not believe a judge will rule in their favor.

“This is a clear stall tactic on behalf of Sophie B. Wright to make sure the case will not be resolved until after the graduation on May 13th, forever denying these students the opportunity to walk. It is an effort to curtail the civil rights of students,” the statement reads.

Court records show Fernandez filed a motion to expedite her case, but Nuestra Voz said it could take up to 30 days for a hearing to be held to send the suit back to district court.

Fernandez’ lawyer, Macy Ledet, was not notified of Washington’s motion to remove the case from district court until Monday -- the morning of the student’s hearing -- according to Nuestra Voz’ statement.

In a statement, Fernandez’ father expressed how unfair and overblown he believes the situation is.

“This is just a moment I want to see with my child," her father said, referencing Fernandez’ graduation. “That’s it. All this over a water fight.”

According to Nuestra Voz, Sophie B. Wright has been criticized in the past for utilizing harsh disciplinary tactics and said the school has the highest expulsion rate in the city.

Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday night, but later sent the following statement:

"First, Sophie B. Wright was not served with this lawsuit until Friday afternoon, with a hearing set for 9 a.m. Monday; this despite the fact Ms. Fernandez’ attorney has all of my contact information.

Second, Defendants removed this case to federal court because Lyric Fernandez claims her federal rights have been violated, under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Regardless, plaintiff is seeking court intervention because she forfeited her senior privileges of attending prom, the senior class picnic, and participation in the graduation ceremony. She was not entitled to any of those privileges by right, and misconduct has consequences."

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