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High school girls in ‘misconstrued’ KKK photo suing for defamation

Brian Barnes, second from right, and his daughter, Mia Fields, look at Barrington High School principal Steve McWilliams and Heath McFaul during a protest outside the school in Barrington, Ill., on July 14, 2017. (Jim Young/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Six Barrington High School students who appeared in a photo labeled “KKK” that ignited a social media firestorm over the summer are suing the school district for defamation.

A hearing on the case is scheduled for federal court Monday.

The controversial picture, widely circulated on the internet, depicted eight smiling white teenage girls dressed in white shirts, raising their hands over their heads in an ambiguous gesture. The image was captioned with the letters “KKK” — the initials of the girl hosting the party — and posted to social media, according to the lawsuit.

“After the photo was uploaded, another student misconstrued the initials for a reference to the Ku Klux Klan, and tweeted out the photo with a call to involve (Barrington High School) and to induce punishment,” the court documents say.

The photo was retweeted and shared thousands of times, with some in cyberspace interpreting the girls’ gestures as mimicking Ku Klux Klan hoods. Officials at Barrington Community School District 220 were inundated with demands to take action against the girls.

The lawsuit, filed in August on behalf of six of the girls by their parents, seeks unspecified damages. An attorney representing the girls and their parents did not immediately return phone calls.

Court documents said the photo was shot off-campus at the home of one of the girls during a party that had a “white out” theme, meaning that those attending were supposed to dress in white-colored clothing. The school has also held similarly themed events, according to media reports.

“The ‘white out’ theme related exclusively to attire, and the party itself was attended by students of various races and ethnicities, including African-Americans,” the lawsuit says.

In a written statement issued when the photo began circulating in July, Superintendent Brian Harris said the district “does not condone the actions of the students in the photo and the matter is under investigation. Once the investigation is complete, we will determine the appropriate consequences, according to our student handbook and board policy.”

The lawsuit also points to statements Principal Stephen McWilliams reportedly made to a small group of youths who protested the photo outside the school on July 14. The suit claims he “championed the (protesters’) cause” with comments such as the image “burns me to my core.”

“These damaging accusations, originating from careless, peripheral online commentators, were made exponentially more effective by the public endorsements of the superintendent and principal,” the lawsuit said. “Such statements will undoubtedly inhibit the (girls’) future educational and career prospects as well as their future earning potential.”

The lawsuit claims the girls’ free speech rights were violated and they were unconstitutionally banned from participating in extracurricular activities pending a hearing. The principal had “summoned the remainder of the girls to school for further interrogations,” without identifying a valid charge or any evidence, according to the lawsuit.

The school district, principal and superintendent denied those claims in court documents filed in September. Attorneys for the school district had also filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying none of the students involved was ever disciplined.

“Plaintiffs have not been suspended or expelled from school attendance, nor is discipline even being contemplated by the school district,” the court documents say, adding that the students who were involved in extracurricular activities were not barred from participation.

“This case arises out of the District 220’s unconstitutional discipline of several Barrington High School students because other BHS students … made it their summer project to instigate a virtual internet mob to threaten and pressure District 220 to involve itself and mete out punishment for the thought crime they imagined had occurred,” the suit contends.

Attorney Darcy Kriha, who represents the school district, declined to comment any further in a phone interview Wednesday because the case “involves student matters.”

The lawsuit does not address or explain the way the girls were gesturing in the photo.

But the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, told the Chicago Tribune in July that what was depicted did not appear to match any known Ku Klux Klan hand gestures.

“My first impression on looking at the photo would not be that these girls are doing something racist,” a spokesman for the center said.


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