A federal judge has granted a Cape Elizabeth High School student temporary relief from a suspension while the court determines whether the school violated her free speech rights by suspending her for posting notes in a girls’ bathroom saying there was a rapist in the school.

Aela Mansmann speaks to students who walked out of Cape Elizabeth High School on Oct. 7 to protest the suspension of Mansmann and two other students who complained about the school’s handling of sexual assault allegations. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

In an order issued Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Lance Walker granted 15-year-old Aela Mansmann’s request for temporary relief from the three-day suspension issued by administrators at the high school.

Walker said while the outcome of the case is still pending, he was persuaded to put the suspension on hold by “a fair likelihood of success” for Mansmann.

In September, Mansmann, an advocate against sexual assault who had previously gone to school administrators to push for better responses to victims, and two other girls posted sticky notes in two bathrooms that read, “There’s a rapist in the school and you know who it is.”

Mansmann said the notes did not refer to a specific person, but rather she wanted to draw attention to the general issue.

She also spoke with the Press Herald about student concerns regarding the district’s response to allegations of sexual assault. The same day a story was published about the concerns and the notes in the school bathrooms, Mansmann was issued a three-day suspension.

The two other girls also were suspended for leaving notes in bathrooms – though for not as long as Mansmann according to the lawsuit – but have not spoken publicly about their cases.

School officials said the notes constituted bullying and that over the course of an investigation they determined that a male student felt he was being targeted by the message and experienced ostracism from his peers and was forced to miss school.

The American Civil Liberties Union then filed a lawsuit alleging school officials violated Mansmann’s First Amendment rights and her protection from retaliation under Title IX, which is part of a federal law that prevents gender discrimination and sexual violence in education.

“Speaking up about sexual assault is already difficult for young people,” Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said in a statement Thursday. “If this punishment had been allowed to stand, it would have only made it more difficult. Today’s decision reaffirms that students have the right to freedom of speech, and that they do not check their rights at the schoolhouse gate.”

Shael Norris, Mansmann’s mother, also lauded the decision in a statement issued through the ACLU.

“All my daughter ever wanted was for students to feel safe speaking out about sexual assault,” Norris said. “I’m so proud of her for standing up for what she believes in. We’re thrilled about today’s decision.”

Melissa Hewey, an attorney for the Cape Elizabeth School Department, did not respond to a phone call and email Thursday afternoon, but Superintendent Donna Wolfrom issued a statement that emphasized the district’s desire to ensure students’ safety.

“The safety of our students is our highest priority, and every Cape Elizabeth School Department administrator, teacher and staff member works hard to provide the safest possible learning environment for our students,” Wolfrom said in an email Thursday night. “We will continue to review and update district policies to align with state law and meet the needs of the district.

“We will move forward with the education and support of our students, and remain ever thankful to the Cape Elizabeth community for their continued support in this effort.”

The judge, however, indicated that the district’s concerns about safety weren’t sufficient to override Mansmann’s free speech rights.

“The public has an interest in knowing that neither (Mansmann) nor any other student who expresses a comparable view in similar fashion will be denied access to school simply because her viewpoint offends the sensibilities of school administrators,” Walker wrote.

“Something more is necessary to justify punishment. If school administrators receive carte blanche to tamp down and vet non-frivolous outcries on topics of social justice, expressed in areas generally associated with free student communication, where would that leave us?”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.