Twenty students at a Long Island high school have been suspended for viewing cellphone video of a sexual encounter between a girl and a boy at a neighboring school, and their parents are outraged over the punishment, insisting their children didn't know what they were getting when they received the video, and that they deleted it right away.
The students at Kings Park High School were suspended for either viewing the encounter on their smartphones or sending copies to friends, officials said Monday, though parents told NBC 4 New York their children deleted the video and didn't forward it. Two 14-year-old boys at neighboring Smithtown High School have been charged in the incident, one of them accused of shooting the video of the other having sex with a girl, police said.
Meanwhile, one of the Kings Park students suspended for viewing the video, 15-year-old AJ Fenton, tried to attend class as normal on Tuesday but was escorted back out by police an hour later.
"I had to pack up all my bags, I got escorted to the main office, the cops were there," AJ told NBC 4 New York, speaking with his parent.
His father. Andrew Fenton, said the commanding officer of Suffolk's 4th Precinct came out of the school and told him, "'Mr. Fenton, they want us to arrest your son for trespassing and we have to do it if you do not take him out of here.'"
Andrew Fenton was one of several parents who have been protesting their children's suspensions. He said Monday, "This is a tragedy that this girl's picture of whatever she was doing got sent around the school. It's a modern-day social media tragedy."
But Fenton said the school went too far in suspending the students. He said his son received the video, but shut his phone off immediately.
AJ explained Tuesday: "I didn't know what it was at first. I clicked on it, then deleted it right away."
Thomas Phelan's son, also 15, said he never even saw the video, but was suspended for being on a group chat where the video was sent.
"Most of these kids are unwilling participants," Phelan said. "They received something. They did not give permission or authority to have it sent to them."
Phelan said at least 30 parents went to the principal's office Monday morning to complain.
The school district said deleting the video wasn't enough and that it believes the suspensions were made in accordance with the district's code of conduct.
In a letter, Superintendent Timothy Eagen wrote, "The thing that deeply upsets me is that very few, if any, of our students district-wide reported any recent problematic behaviors to an adult... We need our young people to be good citizens and report problematic behavior to an adult."
Andrew Fenton countered: "My son's job was to do what he did. He opened it, saw what it was and deleted it."
Eagen said no additional suspensions were anticipated, and the district could not comment further because of privacy laws.
"The district regrets that this incident ever happened. Kings Park is a wonderful community with great kids and supportive residents. This incident does not define who we are as a community," Eagen's statement said. "Now we must move forward and continue to remain vigilant and proactive in educating our youth about the problematic use of today's technology, which has become a serious and global issue."
Attorney Peter Frankel said he believes administrators are standing on shaky legal ground.
"I think the superintendent needs to be very careful in what he does and what action he takes without having the requisite action of proof before he suspends students like he did here," Frankel said.
But trial attorney Joe Bavaro, who does not represent any of the students involved in the incident, told NBC 4 New York that while it doesn't appear AJ broke the law, school policy is another story.
"They're not prosecutors. Their job is to ensure the safety of the student body, to make sure a code of conduct is enforced and followed," he said.
The boys who were charged for the cellphone video are students at Smithtown High School on eastern Long Island, and have not been identified. Police say the two boys face felony charges of disseminating indecent material to minors and promoting a sexual performance by a child, as well as misdemeanor sexual abuse. Authorities say the male and female in the video were known to each other, and the encounter was off school grounds.
Police provided no information on whether they have attorneys who could comment. The case is being prosecuted in Family Court.