PHILADELPHIA, PA — The curtain dropped on act one of a legal drama when a federal judge denied a request to dismiss a lawsuit stemming from the Oley Valley High School 2019 spring musical "Newsies."
Former students Jordan Eck, Haley Hartline and Vincent Ferrizzi filed a federal lawsuit in May, accusing the district of violating their constitutional rights for speaking out against the district's music director, Stacy Lyons, during a March 20 school board meeting. All three students graduated in June and are 18 years old, according to court records.
The judge ruled the case could proceed to its next phase. Another round of motions from attorneys to dismiss the case without a trial are due in November. A trial is scheduled for February, according to court records.
“We expect there is a second act and discovery will allow us to more fully evaluate both sides of this drama which may soon play out in a federal courtroom,” U.S. District Judge Mark A. Kearny, who presides in Philadelphia, wrote in a 16-page opinion.
The suit accuses the district of curtailing the students' freedom to speak out against Lyons.
“Alas, the drama continues as we cannot dismiss the First or the 14th Amendment claims,” Kearny wrote.
The First Amendment provides citizens freedom of speech, and the 14th Amendment provides that the state cannot deprive citizens of their due process of law.
The judge wrote that the play created “a lot of chit-chat, closed meetings, hurt feelings and insults.”
Defendants in the suit are Lyons; the school district; Dr. Tracy Shank, superintendent; and Christopher Becker, then-high school principal.
The complaint filed by Joel A. Ready, a Blandon attorney, alleges Eck and Hartline were suspended for three days each because they spoke out against Lyons at the school board meeting.
Ferrizzi's rights were violated when Lyons ordered him to leave a cast party in the school gymnasium after the last night of the play, the suit alleges.
The plaintiffs are seeking to have their school records expunged of the suspensions and unspecified damages and attorney fees.
Ready said in the lawsuit that the three students were not given an opportunity to have hearings and present witnesses before they were disciplined.
Sharon M. O'Donnell, a Harrisburg attorney representing the district, countered in court papers that the case lacks merit and should be dismissed.
O'Donnell said the district is continuing its drama program this year.
According to the lawsuit:
Eck and Hartline were given parts in the school musical. The students and their parents raised concerns about the direction Lyons provided to the students in the play. Eck expressed an interest in speaking about issues pertaining to the play at the board meeting.
The day before the meeting, Lyons emailed the drama club's parents warning them that Eck planned to destroy the club. At the meeting, the board members asked the students to limit comments to positive ones. Eck, Hartline and Ferrizzi spoke out against Lyons while other students praised Lyons.
The following day, Eck was suspended for insubordination for allegedly acting in a threatening manner toward another school employee during a discussion with Lyons. He was also removed from the play.
Hartline quit the play. Hartline was also suspended.
At a cast party after the last show, Lyons praised other cast members but had Ferrizzi kicked out of the party.