LACEY — A lawsuit could become a teaching moment for high school officials who suspended two students last year for sharing pictures of firearms on their personal social media accounts.

The students were punished last March after posting photos of their legally owned guns at a shooting range. One of the posts was captioned “hot stuff” and “If there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, you know where to go.”

The Snapchat posts disappear after 24 hours and can only be seen by followers. But high school officials got involved after a parent called the school to report that the Snapchat posts had made their child nervous, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the firm Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, says the school had no right to discipline the students.

“There was no threat. No unlawful behavior whatsoever. That is classic speech,” said Alexander Shalom, a senior supervising attorney for the ACLU-NJ. “They communicated something to their friends off of school grounds, off of school property, off of school time and the school simply doesn’t have the authority to discipline them for what they’re doing outside of school time.”

The suspension caused a public stir last year for the district. Parents packed a school board meeting to protest a policy that they believed violated students' First and Second Amendment rights.

"Where did we give up that right to be a parent?" one resident asked.

Around the same time, the district amended its student handbook to delete a rule that seemed to prohibit students from handling firearms off school grounds. The Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs — a New Jersey NRA chapter — threatened to sue the district over this policy, which district officials said they had intended to change before the legal threat.

Another parent last year said the district forced his son to remove a bumper sticker from his car because it depicted a rifle.

Vanessa Clark, who was appointed schools superintendent after the gun controversies last year, did not respond to an email request for comment Wednesday afternoon.

School districts across the country have been adapting to a new normal in which students as early as elementary school drill for active shooter and terror situations. Often, online messages that are either hoaxes or perceived as threatening lead to disruptive school lock-downs and hallway sweeps by SWAT teams.

Last year, a Nutley High School student was arrested and charged with causing public alarm after sharing an Instagram post of a shooting range with the popular song “Pumped Up Kicks,” which has lyrics about kids outrunning a gun. He also created a video game version of his school where a player could shoot people.

Shalom said the Lacey case is different because school officials never contacted police thinking there was a threat. The Snapchat posts never referenced the school or a school shooting.

“And one of them referenced the zombie apocalypse, so there could be nothing that could be perceived as an actual threat there,” he said.

“I want schools to take threats seriously. What I don’t want them to do is think they have the ability and the authority to discipline students for their lawful activities off of school grounds.”

The two students, identified in the complaint as Cody Conroy and “H.S.,” have since graduated. The second student is identified by initials because he was a minor at the time of the suspension.

The lawsuit wants the district to place a statement in the students’ records clarifying that their rights were violated by the punishment; seeks a court order demanding that the district not discipline students for protected speech off school grounds; and demands that the district get rid of policies that conflict with this.

In a statement provided by the ACLU, H.S. said the suspension made him feel “like I had no place where I could truly speak freely.”

Conroy said he was filing the lawsuit “so that no one at my high school in the future has to feel like the First Amendment wasn’t meant to include them.”

Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email sergio.bichao@townsquaremedia.com.

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