Putnam County Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter said Thursday he has asked Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter to file a petition to transfer the case of A.B. vs. the State of Indiana to the state's highest court after a decision by the Indiana Court of Appeals reversed a June 2006 decision by the Putnam Juvenile Court.
"I thought Judge Headley made the right decision," Bookwalter said of the juvenile case's outcome locally, which sentenced a former Greencastle Middle School student to nine months of probation for setting up a webpage on MySpace.com that made false statements and threats against her former principal.
"I don't think they understood all the facts," Bookwalter said of the Appeals Court decision, announced Monday.
Declaring that the juvenile's postings on the webpage are protected as political free speech, the appeals court reversed the juvenile court's findings that the student, named as A.B., was a juvenile delinquent based on six counts of harassment. The appeals court case threw out all but one of the juvenile court's harassment charges.
According to court documents, the website postings had been set up by A.B. and another student, R.B., who represented two webpages to have been set up by GMS principal Shawn Gobert and assistant principal Matthew Taylor. Postings on the site included "vulgar epithets," as acknowledged by the appeals court judges, and A.B. posted the statement "die ... gobert ... die" on Feb. 16, 2006.
Those webpages were available for viewing to many of the juveniles' friends.
"They (the appeals court) talked like it was private and it wasn't," Bookwalter said of the websites' content. "What was misunderstood is that those girls held themselves out to be the principal and the vice principal."
The postings did comment on body piercings and how school administrators could no longer "control" A.B. At the time of the postings, A.B. was no longer a GMS student and had transferred to Cloverdale schools. The postings also made false and negative references to the sexual orientation of the administrators, the prosecutor said.
"To me, it's not free and protected speech when you make things up to harm somebody," Bookwalter said. "I made the suggestion to the attorney general that he file a petition to transfer the case. I think this is a big enough issue that they (the supreme court) ought to look at it."
Greencastle school officials also agree that the appeals court decision could encourage other people to post untrue and defamatory comments about school administrators and staff.
"My opinion is, I don't agree with the appeals court decision," Supt. Robert Green told the Greencastle School Board Wednesday. "I understand it from an intellectual standpoint but I don't agree with it. ... We're going to continue to enforce our discipline code and conduct code and make sure our schools can function and make sure that all our schools are safe."
Green also commended Prosecutor Bookwalter and Judge Headley for their support of the schools.
"As an educator, principals and educators have to have the right to keep the schools safe for students," Green said.
School Board president Jack Berry said he was shocked when he read the appeals court's decision.
"I can't understand how they can come to that conclusion," he said of the statement that the student's postings were protected as "political free speech."
Board attorney Bob Rund said he disagrees with the appeals court's emphasis on protected political speech.
"The threat that's in there," Rund said of the web posting, "I think the decision should have been decided differently. Whether or not you can use profane language at someone may not be criminal, but the threat is."
Green pointed out that the appeals court did not look at any action taken by the school, since none was taken, but looked at the penalty imposed on the former student by the juvenile court.
Greencastle Schools had no authority to take action against the former student, and Rund said that may have made a difference in the outcome.
If it had been a current student saying that about a current administrator," Rund said, "the court may have come out differently. Maybe if they had had all the evidence that didn't get up to them, they may have decided differently."
The school board members stated Wednesday that they support Gobert and the action taken by the juvenile court.
Gobert said he was thankful that the prosecutor's office took the case seriously. And since word of the decision was made public, he said he has been overwhelmed by positive support from the public.
"This was not at all about the school's ability to discipline," Gobert said of the case.
Ironically, Bookwalter said, juvenile A.B. has already served the nine-month sentence of probation ordered by the juvenile court.