Henrico County student suspended after protesting in virtual classroom, seeks to appeal with help of ACLU

Henrico County

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The American Civil Liberties Union represented a Henrico County high school student at his suspension hearing today. Kenton Vizdos is facing his second suspension this year from Deep Run High School for attempts to conduct a silent protest during class.

Vizdos has full support by his parents, who accompanied him to the hearing.

According to the ACLU, Vizdos started by showing a slideshow instead of his default video screen in a class run through Microsoft Teams. Teachers had asked Vizdos to stop the slideshow and eventually he was kicked out of class.

He then received a warning from school administration asked him to stop showing the “scrolling protest” or he would be suspended. When Vizdos instead showed a static image he was suspended for two-days.

“The issues I’m protesting – racism, fascism and injustice – are important to me, and my goal is to start a dialogue about these problems with my classmates and our administration,” said Vizdos in an ACLU press release. “Too many Black people are killed by police in this country. We have serious problems with systemic racism, and it shows up in law enforcement, in government and in my school. I made sure that my silent protest didn’t break any school rules, but I’m still not allowed to attend my classes.”

Vizdos returned to virtual classes after the first suspension and continued to show the image. This time he was suspended for ten days.

“Over the last three years at Deep Run I’ve noticed that incidents of racism just go un-punished,” Vizdos said. “People will report these incidents and the administration just writes them off as untrue or false.”

After being suspended, Vizdos filled out an intake form on the ACLU of Virginia’s website. The organization receives four thousand intake forms a year. The ACLU of Virginia told 8news, Vizdos’ case stood out and was compelling.

“Kenton has every right under the First Amendment to protest in this way, but the administration seems intent on quashing his freedom of speech,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “Instead of encouraging Kenton’s civic engagement and addressing the issues of systemic racism he’s trying to raise, the administration is punishing him and jeopardizing his future. Schools don’t get to determine how its students express themselves or what issues they care about.”

A representative from Henrico County Public Schools told 8News, the district does not agree with the ACLU’s “characterization of the issues.” They said the issues were not with the content of the student’s speech and no one was suspended due to the content of a virtual protest.

According to the ACLU release, Vizdos suspension letter says the reason for the punishment was, “Kenton’s displays are not directly related to the content being taught during his classes and has caused disruptions.”

“Kenton has the right to protest. The fact that we’re in virtual school, doesn’t shed those rights simply because we’re not in person,” said Heilman.

The school district says that students must follow the Code of Student Conduct, the HCPS Authorized Use of Technology agreement and classroom rules for online learning.

Under the Code of Student Conduct, students have the right to express ideas “verbally and/or in writing in accordance with HCPS policies and procedures” and the responsibility to express opinions and ideas while respecting school policies and procedures.

According to the HCPS learning plan handbook, student cameras should be on as needed and otherwise they will be “encouraged to use a generic ‘virtual background’ within Microsoft Teams determined by their teacher.” The handbook says students should use their name or initials as their icon when they camera is turned off.

Henrico Public Schools cannot comment on student disciplinary matters. The school district was unable to come to a decision Friday. According to Heilman, HCPS will take the case under advisement and a decision should be made in the “next week or so.”

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