Last week, photos posted to Tumblr claiming to show that Miami Sunset High has a filth problem -- showing spoiled juice, a moldy shower, and a cockroach allegedly inside the building -- went viral on social media, prompting an official probe from public school officials.
But some Sunset alumni say the high school's problem goes beyond bad cleanliness standards. They say the high school has a free speech problem. When students complained about the conditions and posted on social media, they were allegedly threatened with disciplinary action and forced to apologize.
In a letter to administrators -- later posted to Facebook -- the alumni from the class of 2004 claim that students have been punished for speaking out.
"Unfortunately, it has come to our attention that the administration at our alma mater has taken an unusually aggressive stance against free speech by threatening students with disciplinary action for having expressed legitimate concerns about the safety of their educational environment," the group wrote in a letter to the school, later posted on Facebook.
John Schuster, a spokesman for Miami-Dade Public Schools, strongly disputed the alumni violation of free speech claims, stating that the issue was not about the first amendment but rather one of respect:
Miami-Dade County Public Schools not only respects students' rights to free speech, but encourages it. The situation at Miami Sunset Senior High School is not an issue involving freedom of speech; it is an issue involving the respectful use of social media. The students' use of profane language in a message that would be seen as offensive to anyone who read it is a violation of the School Board's Acceptable Use Policy for the Internet, which prohibits vulgarity. After students issued the message, they were asked to review the Acceptable Use Policy and write an apology letter, a request that is totally appropriate in a case like this. Students were never threatened with suspension for expressing themselves about safety conditions. And while we will continue to promote freedom of speech, we -- as educators -- continue to have a responsibility to instill core values, including respect, in our students.
In their letter, the group of alumni praised the school for their "fond memories" and decried the reported use of offensive language by students, but also vigorously criticized the school for the repressive way the alumni believe it handled the matter:
"Aggressive disciplinary action may have unintended consequences, such as the chilling of lawful speech that is vital to a healthy democracy. Our request is a reasonable one: that no students should be punished for publicizing on social media the unsafe conditions that they are exposed to while in school...
"Compelled speech can be just as antithetical to free speech as the restriction of speech," the letter continued, "which is why we also object to any demands for apology letters from the students. Few things could be more toxic to an authentic discussion than a compelled apology."
Last week, Schuster told Riptide the school did in fact have "a situation involving juice boxes" -- several of the boxes had been improperly refrigerated over the winter break, and were immediately thrown out once the problem was discovered.
But Schuster also said the school had recently received the highest possible inspection rating, and that the photo of the cockroach, in particular, was suspect because it had come from the same aggrieved student who recently wrote a profanity-laced email to administrators.
"Some of [the pictures] we feel may have been manipulated," he said. "So until they're authenticated..we will go with what we know, and that's based on the inspection reports."
Here's the complete letter from the alumni: