The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is asking a federal judge to block Cape Elizabeth High School from suspending a sophomore who posted a sticky note in a bathroom that said “there’s a rapist in the school.”

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

The allegation has caused an uproar in the community. Aela Mansmann, 15, and her supporters staged a walkout last week at the school over the suspension, while school administrators vigorously defended their actions on Friday. Mansmann is not alleging that she has been assaulted, but says she was advocating on behalf of students who had confided in her.

The ACLU filed a complaint over the suspension Sunday in U.S. District Court in Portland. The lawsuit alleges that 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.

The civil liberties organization also filed a separate motion asking the court to issue a temporary restraining order that would prevent the three-day, out-of-school suspension from going into effect while the case is litigated.

“The school is punishing (Mansmann) for attempting to talk about an issue of real concern to herself and other students,” said Alison Beyea, executive director of the ACLU of Maine. “More and more, young people are leading the way and calling on us all to have badly needed conversations about difficult issues. Instead of trying to silence them, it is our responsibility as adults to give them a safe forum in which to be heard. Unfortunately, Cape Elizabeth administrators took a much different tack. The school’s decision to suspend (Mansmann) will have a chilling effect on other students and make them hesitant to speak up about sexual assault, for fear of being punished.”

Superintendent Donna Wolfrom denied Mansmann’s appeal of the suspension, which was issued by high school Principal Jeff Shedd. The complaint names as defendants the Cape Elizabeth School District, Shedd and Wolfrom, along with Vice Principal Nathan Carpenter. Mansmann’s mother, Shael Norris, is the plaintiff on her behalf.

Neither the principal nor the superintendent responded to requests for comment on Tuesday. A staff person who answered the phone at the superintendent’s office said an attorney has advised school officials not to speak to the media at this time. They have not yet filed a response to the complaint or the motion for a temporary restraining order, but the ACLU said in a news release that the school has agreed to delay Mansmann’s suspension until after a hearing next week. The punishment was supposed to begin Tuesday.

Mansmann and two other students spoke at a school board meeting in June to say they were unhappy with the way the school handled allegations of sexual assault. Some girls publicly disclosed their own experiences, but Mansmann said others have confided in her anonymously before and after that meeting.

The school board has convened a subcommittee to review the procedures for its harassment policy, and an attorney conducted a training for administrators and staff on mandatory reporting, which is the stipulation in federal law that requires staff to report credible allegations of sexual assault or misconduct to certain parties, like the state and the district attorney.

But Mansmann said the girls still felt they were not being heard or included by their school. In September, they posted sticky notes in two bathrooms with a message: “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.

Mansmann and other students spoke to the Portland Press Herald about their concerns this month. While Norris said school officials initially said her daughter would not be punished for posting the notes, they issued the suspension on the same day the Press Herald published her comments. About 50 students walked out of school last week to protest the suspensions of Mansmann and two other students.

School officials had said federal privacy laws prohibited them from discussing specific incidents, but they believe students are safe and there is no rapist at Cape Elizabeth High School. Then the principal sent a letter to parents last week that included new details about investigations into specific allegations of sexual assault both in response to the note and in the past, although that note did not include the names of the students involved.

Shedd also said the school has received threats, and a student who felt he was the target of the notes had missed eight days of school because he felt unsafe. The boy’s family told the school that the incident felt like bullying. While the principal did not explicitly mention Mansmann, the school had sent an earlier letter to Mansmann saying she was being suspended because the notes violated the school’s policy against bullying.

Mansmann appealed her suspension, and her mother said the school notified her Friday through the ACLU that she had been denied. The letter from the superintendent about the appeal is attached to the legal complaint. Wolfrom said she still found that the suspension constituted bullying, in part because Mansmann discussed a specific student during interviews with school officials. She wrote that the decision to suspend Mansmann was made before the story was published in the Press Herald and was not unreasonable.

“In conclusion, I hope that you have learned from this experience that while advocacy of ideas is critical to our democratic society, spreading rumors about particular individuals is destructive and cannot be tolerated,” Wolfrom wrote in the letter. “I encourage you to continue to advocate for issues you feel passionate about, but to do so in an appropriate manner.”

 

Two other girls who were suspended do not appear to be part of the legal action.

A news release from the ACLU quoted Mansmann, who was in school Tuesday, her mother said.

“After decades of shaming and silencing victims of sexual assault, my generation is finally learning that it’s OK to speak up,” Mansmann said. “But if schools start punishing students for trying to have this conversation, it’s just going to force survivors back into the shadows. I hope administrators will change their mind about suspending me and instead use this as a chance to have a much-needed conversation with all of us.”

Norris said the decision to take the issue to court was a difficult one for her and her daughter. Mansmann’s goal was to start a conversation about how the school handles allegations of sexual assault, and they believe she has been successful. But Mansmann decided she wanted to send a message to all schools about how to treat students who speak out about alleged sexual assaults. Her mother pointed to states like New Hampshire, where a high schooler was punished years ago when she reported inappropriate behavior by a popular teacher. That man is now charged with sexually assaulting another student around that time.

“There are so many other students this has happened to,” Norris said. “This isn’t just a Cape issue.”

The complaint argues Mansmann engaged in protected speech when she posted the sticky notes and talked to the media about her concerns. It also says the note was not bullying because it was not directed at a specific person. The complaint asks the court to declare the school district’s actions against Mansmann to be unlawful, and then order the school to rescind her suspension and expunge her record. The lawsuit does not seek financial damages beyond attorney’s fees and court costs. The court will hold a hearing on the motion for a temporary restraining order Monday.

“We all know by now that students’ free speech rights don’t end at the schoolhouse gate,” said Emma Bond, staff attorney at the ACLU of Maine. “The anti-bullying law was meant as a shield to protect students who are being targeted and harassed. It was not meant to silence students speaking up about difficult topics.”

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