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 Expelled Students, School Corporation Reach Settlement

February 28, 2007 - The Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation has reached a tentative settlement with three Knightstown High School students who sued after being expelled over a homemade video school officials said threatened and defamed a local teacher.

Attorneys representing KHS sophomores Isaac Imel, Cody Overbay and Charlie Ours, and the boys' parents, met with CAB Superintendent David McGuire and attorneys representing CAB and CAB's insurer at the federal courthouse in Indianapolis last Wednesday. The nearly five hour conference, which included no break for lunch, proved productive.

"What we did yesterday was reach a preliminary settlement agreement," explained Jackie Suess,an American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana attorney who represented Imel and Ours. "We're going to draft a more detailed one that we will file with the court. They've given us until March 30 to file the final documents."

The three students, who were in school and did not attend last week's settlement conference, sued CAB alleging their rights of free speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution were violated when the school corporation expelled them last November for the rest of the school year. The disciplinary action, which was unanimously upheld by the CAB School Board, was taken in response to a horror film parody the students made on their own time away from school; school officials said the film was threatening and defamatory to a Knightstown Intermediate School teacher who shares the same last name as a teacher character lampooned in the film.

In December, Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted preliminary injunctions that allowed Imel and Overbay to return to school while their lawsuits were pending and make up any work missed during the 10 weeks they were out of school. On its own, CAB agreed to allow Ours and a fourth student, Harrison Null, return to school as well. Last month, Ours, who did not initially sue CAB, was joined as an additional plaintiff in the suit the ACLU filed on behalf of Imel, leaving Null as the only student not involved in the litigation.

When she spoke to The Banner last week, Suess said she could not disclose the settlement's terms. At the request of attorneys representing CAB, she said the parties have agreed they will not disclose or discuss terms of the settlement with anyone else.

"We're allowed to say that we reached a mutually acceptable agreement," Suess said. "It's pretty standard," she said of the nondisclosure clause. "They almost always insist on that."

While not able to discuss the settlement's specific terms, Suess said she was pleased with the outcome. "I think everybody is happy," she said. "At least the plaintiff's are happy. I assume the school probably is, too."

"I think it's unfortunate that it was drawn out as long as it was and that they were out of school for two months and that we had to go through all of this," Suess continued. "But it appears to be over now and amicably resolved."

Linda Imel, Isaac's mother, said that for her son and herself, she's just glad this is coming to an end. "It's been a crazy case," she said. "To have it finally end is refreshing."

 Asked if she was happy with the settlement, Cody Overbay's mother, Robin Shepard, answered, "What can you say?"  She said she thinks the agreement is "as acceptable as it's going to get."

Although the settlement prevents the parties from discussing its specific terms, The Banner hopes to obtain a copy of the agreement through a record request. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled in late 2005, in a case The Banner brought against the town of Knightstown and its insurer, that settlement agreements involving public agencies that have been sued are public records.

Suess told The Banner that she is aware of the Court of Appeals ruling in the Banner's successful case against Knightstown. "I'm sure you'll be able to get it because the school recognized that you would probably be able to get a copy of the settlement agreement," she said. "But the parties have agreed not to discuss it."

McGuire, CAB's superintendent, told The Banner last week that the school corporation would not fight a record request for a copy of the agreement, which has not yet been finalized. Late Monday afternoon, The Banner filed its record request with CAB.

Linda Imel said she didn't understand why CAB's attorneys insisted on the nondisclosure clause. Personally, she said she had no problem with people knowing the terms of the settlement.

"I think we have always been very open from the beginning because we were right," Imel said. "People who are wrong want to hide things, more often than not. … I just think that sometimes you have to have a little backbone and stick up for what's right and have some common sense."

Although he did not attend the settlement conference, Mike Imel, Isaac's father, told The Banner he also wasn't in favor of the nondisclosure clause. "If I had known that was part of it, I would have never agreed to it,"

"I would hope that the settlement would serve as a wake up call," Linda Imel said. "How long will it take for the school to wakeup and say, 'Maybe we need some checks and balances. Maybe we need to do the right thing from the beginning so we don't have to play these games.'"

Calls to CAB's legal counsel and Overbay's attorney, Mark Sullivan, were not returned prior to the news deadline for this week's issue.

 

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