Rogers High student sues district over fallout from online post

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2014 - 11:03 PM

Suit claims seven-week Rogers High suspension violated civil rights and damaged reputation.

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"No matter how I meant it, [it] doesn't matter," Reid Sagehorn told the Star Tribune about his online troubles. "Sarcasm doesn't belong on the Internet."

Photo: Mark Vancleave, Star Tribune

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Reid Sagehorn, the former Rogers High School student whose apparently sarcastic two-word Internet posting resulted in a seven-week suspension and an ensuing uproar in the Elk River School District, on Tuesday sued the district and the Rogers police chief, charging that his reputation was permanently damaged and his civil rights violated.

Sagehorn, 18, who never was charged with a crime, said in the 31-page suit filed in U.S. District Court that his name “is forever linked with the term ‘felony.’ ” In addition to Police Chief Jeff Beahen, the suit names as co-defendants Elk River Superintendent Mark Bezek, Rogers High School Principal Roman Pierskalla, Assistant Superintendent Jana Hennen-Burr and police liaison Stephen Sarazin.

The suit, which asks for compensation from the district and police and for a jury trial, emphasizes that Sagehorn’s Internet posting involving a teacher was made outside of school hours, off school grounds and without the use of school property. It claims that Sagehorn’s First and 14th Amendment rights were violated and that he was forced to withdraw from Rogers High School.

Superintendent Bezek, who acknowledged months ago that the district had entered “uncharted waters” as it struggled with questions about disciplining Sagehorn, was stunned Tuesday morning to learn of the lawsuit.

“There’s been no papers served,” Bezek said. “I’m trying to decipher what this is. We don’t have a comment at all because I’m not sure what we’re commenting about.”

The posting and aftermath

In January, Sagehorn, a member of the National Honor Society and captain of the Rogers football and basketball teams, replied, “Actually, yeah,” to an online question about whether he had “made out” with a 28-year-old teacher. Sagehorn, then 17, later said that there was no relationship and that his comment was meant sarcastically.

“Reid’s posting was meant to be taken in jest,” the suit says. “This was a mistake. … He never intended for anyone to believe his post.”

Instead, it resulted in a firestorm within the School District. Sagehorn was originally suspended for five days, on Feb. 3, at least a week after the post. Principal Pierskalla called Lori Sagehorn and said her son was being suspended because he “damaged a teacher’s reputation,” according to the lawsuit.

Sagehorn’s lawyers — Robert Bennett, Joe Friedberg and Ron Rosenbaum — write in the suit that his “conduct in no way constituted threatening, intimidating or assault of a teacher, administrator or other staff member, and any reasonable school official or police officer would understand that to be the case.”

The suspension was amended to 10 days. Then Sagehorn was handed a nearly two-month suspension, sparking protests at Rogers High School, at a school board meeting and on the Internet.

Beahen, through the Rogers police, declined to comment on the lawsuit Tuesday. In mid-February, he said that Sagehorn could face charges up to a felony in the case. Days later, the Hennepin County attorney’s office said there would be no charges. Beahen said he had erred when he said a felony charge was possible.

“How do Reid and his family overcome the hurt to his reputation?” Friedberg asked at the time.

That question is again addressed in the lawsuit. The suit emphasizes that Sagehorn was a minor when he made his Web post. It takes issue with Beahen, who was quoted as saying that Sagehorn’s conduct was like “crying or yelling, ‘Fire!’ in a movie theater or saying, ‘I got a bomb,’ on a plane.”

Neither Sagehorn nor his parents could be reached for comment Tuesday.

February apology

In a February interview with the Star Tribune, Sagehorn apologized for his posting and announced that he was leaving Rogers High School. He recently graduated from St. Michael-Albertville High School and plans to attend North Dakota State University this fall.

“I think it’s definitely important that everybody who has heard about the story know how sincerely sorry I am,” Sagehorn told the Star Tribune in February. “No matter how I meant it, [it] doesn’t matter,” he said of the now-defunct “Rogers Confessions” page on ask.fm.

“I thought everybody would take it as a joke,” he said.

Sagehorn’s suspension cost him more than his basketball captainship and his spot on the baseball team, according to the lawsuit; it says he suffered shame, humiliation and mental anguish. His senior year, which he had expected to be exciting and carefree, particularly after his early admission to North Dakota State in October, became a nightmare, it said.

After Sagehorn’s transfer to St. Michael, Elk River Superintendent Bezek told the Star Tribune that the door remained open for Sagehorn’s possible return to Rogers High School. “He still is welcome back,” Bezek said in March. “That’s always been on the table.

“This has never happened before,” Bezek said then of the two-word posting that went viral. “Are the rules that we have today appropriate for the game? My understanding is the school knew nothing about this confessions page. I didn’t know we had this confessions page.”

Bezek said at the time that he had just returned from a superintendents’ convention in Nashville and that the primary topic concerned “staying out of trouble with social media.”

“Technical changes are happening so fast that it’s impossible to keep up,” he said in March. “Kids are living in a world without consequences and boundaries.”

 

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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