Demi Brae Cuccia’s Story

By Steve Helmeci
July 8, 2013

MONROEVILLE, Pa. – Pictures of a young girl flash up on the projector screen hanging in the auditorium. As Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” plays in the background, the sad story of Demi Brae Cuccia is relayed to 300 or more people. Video clips of shocked friends and members of the Gateway community talking about Demi’s kind demeanor or love for life cycle between more pictures of the girl. A few news clips offer some explanation of the tragic night, but the true story isn’t fully explained. Eventually, text comes over a photo of Demi that describes her horrible premature passing.

From the raw emotion conveyed in the video, it felt as though she passed yesterday, not a whole five years ago.

But that was only the beginning of the presentation.

On Aug 15, 2007, Demi, a Junior at Gateway High School at the time, allowed her ex-boyfriend, John Mullarkey, to come over and talk. Perhaps she expected a small altercation, but not what would happen next. Nobody would expect what happened next.

In what is believed to be a premeditated assault, Mullarkey pulled a knife on Demi and attacked her, stabbing Demi 16 times. Somehow, Demi was able to escape the house, where she collapsed on a neighbor’s lawn. One of the lacerations severed a major artery in Demi’s shoulder, causing her to bleed to death that night. It was the day after he she turned 16.

Nobody becomes a parent expecting to have to bury their child someday. But, Dr. Gary Cuccia had to bury his daughter, a “beautiful girl [who] loved everybody.”

“You never want to walk in my shoes,” Cuccia said. “It’s one of those clubs you never want to be a member of.”

Cuccia is the head of the Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Organization, which he founded in his daughter’s memory with the goal of educating high school students about the perils of teen dating violence. On May 2, he came and gave his presentation, including the sobering video, to Mt. Lebanon High School freshmen and sophomores.

Immediately after Demi’s death, however, Cuccia took an activist path. He worked to champion a bill in the state House of Representatives that mandated teen dating violence education in all Pennsylvania high schools in honor of Demi. Despite the passing of House Bill 2026, Cuccia calls the process a “nightmare.”

“I was so frustrated with the legislators,” Cuccia said. “We mailed a letter to every state representative; there’s 214 state representatives and 50 senators. That’s a lot of legislators. We got four responses back.”

Although Representative Scott Conklin (D) of Centre County agreed to sponsor the bill, the headaches were only beginning for Cuccia.

“The problem with legislation is, once there’s a bill that is getting a lot of attention, it’s gaining momentum, a lot of legislators want to attach something to it, because they think, ‘this is how I can get my agenda passed,’” Cuccia said.

After his frustrating and draining battle to get his daughter’s legislation passed, Cuccia changed tactics, despite offers to aid in federal legislation. He said, “Then I thought, I have to do something. I have to share Demi’s message to high school students.”

Though Cuccia acknowledged the importance of the legislation, he realized “it’s just not as important as I had [thought] initially.”

Cuccia knew he needed a way to get Demi’s story directly to students, to teach them that dating violence is real and prevalent. That was the beginning of the Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Organization.

Cuccia says that, after more than 50 presentations to approximately 40,000 high school students, the presentations can take their toll.

“I get emotionally drained,” Cuccia said. “I pour my heart out when I’m speaking to you guys. I just really want my daughter’s story to resonate so that it makes a difference.”

Cuccia says that it makes him uncomfortable to do more than one presentation in a day. He has tried to do three in a day, but physically cannot do it. There are only so many times in one day he can talk about his daughter.

It is Cuccia’s belief that hearing his daughter’s story will have a more profound impact on the students he speaks to. “A health teacher can have a lesson on [dating violence], but I think it’s more powerful to see my daughter, and to feel her story,” he said.

Cuccia touched on a number of points during his presentation, but, for those who weren’t able to see it, he has one piece of advice for all teens: “If you think you’re in a controlling, abusive relationship, be extra careful in taking steps to get out of it. Do it in a public setting around friends; do not allow yourself to be put in a situation where you’re alone,” he said.

For more information about Demi or the organization, scan the QR code, go to www.demibrae.com or “like” The Demi Brae Cuccia Awareness Foundation’s Facebook page.

‘Harlem Shake’-Up

By Steve Helmeci
July 5, 2013

PLUM BOROUGH, Pa. – So lets suppose we’re bored tonight and want to watch some YouTube videos. More than likely, one of the “Most Watched” videos will be a Harlem Shake video done by some professional sports team, television show cast, or just a group of random people. We don’t watch YouTube videos often, so we don’t know what a Harlem Shake is, but it looks interesting–let’s click the link. Immediately the video starts playing, and we see a room full of people working diligently or otherwise occupied while one person is repeating the same motion over and over in the center of the room to a techno beat. After about 15 seconds of this, a man’s voice says “DO THE HARLEM SHAKE!”

Then the bass drops, and all hell breaks loose.

Suddenly everyone comes alive, gyrating in his or her own special way to a more prominent techno beat. Let’s just say most of the motions wouldn’t be allowed at a Mt. Lebanon school dance. Despite the provocative nature, we share a laugh and our night continues on as before, leaving us rather unaffected by the video in the long run, and certainly not upset with the people in the video.

Unfortunately, that isn’t the reaction that school administrators at Brownsville High School in Pennsylvania, Nyack and Tappan Zee High Schools in New York, Milford High School in Michigan and countless other high schools throughout the United States had when they saw that students from their schools made Harlem Shake videos.

Students all across the country are being suspended for creating Harlem Shake videos, whether in school or after a school event. Although they are not the only cases of suspensions connected to Harlem Shake videos throughout the U.S. or even the world, the suspensions at three schools mentioned above have garnered national media attention for various reasons. Despite the precedent being set by administrators regarding the Harlem Shake, however, the schools could be violating the students’ constitutional rights by censoring their ability to make the videos.

As each of the three scenarios is an entirely different case study, it would be a disservice to them to lump them all together. Therefore, they will each be individually highlighted below. With the help of Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., the constitutionality of each school’s respective actions was examined. At this point, none of the schools has given any statements on the nature of the suspensions.

Brownsville Area High School, Pennsylvania

“We were given permission to [make the video]. The sub watched us do it about four times.”

Senior Whitney Ptak expected zero blowback after she and 12 other students in her Photography class made a Harlem Shake video during a free period with a substitute teacher.

“One of my friends was talking about it then they were like ‘let’s make one!’ I’m not one to just sit there and say no, so I did it,” Ptak said.

Therefore, it came as a shock to Ptak and her classmates when they were called down to the principal’s office and told they were suspended.

“[The principal] called us down and said ‘Don’t talk — listen. You have two days out.’ then left,” Ptak said. “We were not given any reason for our suspension. None at all.”

Upon hearing Ptak’s description of the events surrounding her suspension, LoMonte couldn’t help but chuckle. “You have to know what it is you’re accused of doing and have a chance to respond before serving the punishment,” he said.

LoMonte feels that, assuming the principal acted as he was described to have acted, the students’ Fifth Amendment rights to due process were clearly violated.

“If the students weren’t given basis for suspension, then they’re violating basic due process,” LoMonte said.

Another issue LoMonte had with the actions of the school was the apparent violation of the Pennsylvania Administrative Code by the Brownsville administrators.

“Under Pennsylvania regulations, you can’t be punished for the content of your speech unless it disrupts the school day,” he said.

The regulation LoMonte is referring to comes from Section 12.9b of the Pennsylvania Administrative Code on the Freedom of Expression. The Code reads: “Students shall have the right to express themselves unless the expression materially and substantially interferes with the educational process, threatens serious harm to the school or community, encourages unlawful activity or interferes with another individual’s rights.”

Based on a cursory overview of the video and the events surrounding it, LoMonte feels that unless the students were punished for jumping up on desks (which not all of the students did), the school would have trouble making a case for the suspensions. Even if the students standing on desks caused the suspension, LoMonte said that the school would “have a hard time making [a case for the punishments] stick.”

“If you’re doing something under teacher approval, it’s hard to make the case for disruption,” LoMonte said.

Ptak and her classmates, meanwhile, still had to serve out their suspensions, and despite pressure from the ACLU and NCA, the school still stands firm in their decision.

“I’m trying to get a scholarship for track, so I’m hoping this doesn’t mess up my future,” Ptak said.

Nyack and Tappan Zee High Schools, New York

After working incredibly hard all season and skating to the best regular season record in team history, a compilation hockey team from Nyack and Tappan Zee High Schools in New York state was forced to forfeit their first round playoff game after the schools suspended 11 team members for their participation in a Harlem Shake video in the locker room after practice.

“My whole team and I were definitely disappointed because we had such a great season,” Senior Corey Aronson said.

According to Aronson, the video was identified by administrators as having “crude and vulgar gestures,” thereby making it punishable by suspension.

The suspensions and the forfeit were definitely lumped together, according to Aronson. “[The schools] said 11 in the video, 11 suspended. So, that’s not enough players on the roster to play by the league rules,” he said.

Like Ptak, Aronson was greatly surprised when the suspensions came down. “We created the video to follow a popular new fad,” he said. “We didn’t think anything would happen besides our school getting a good laugh.”

The suspensions were even more surprising for Aronson and his teammates due to the fact that they posted the video online anonymously, with no team name or player names attached. What makes the suspensions more problematic is that the video was shot in a locker room that is not on school grounds.

Upon hearing that kids were suspended for behavior not occurring on school grounds or physically at a school event, LoMonte was adamant that the school’s actions are not in line with what power schools truly have.

“Engaging in vulgar speech is absolutely, positively not punishable by a school unless it is on school grounds or at a school event,” LoMonte said with clear conviction.

“If that were the case,” he continued, “a student could be suspended for having sex with his girlfriend or cursing at his parents. School authority cannot go that far.”

LoMonte went on to say that the administrators at Nyack and Tappan Zee were “pushing the outermost boundaries of school jurisdiction.”

With regard to both Brownsville and Nyack/Tappan Zee, LoMonte said that the administrators were “treading on thin ice” considering the students’ First Amendment rights as well as their right to due process.

Milford High School, Michigan

Senior Alex Yono and a large group of his friends from Milford have been creating videos for a year under the name “WhiteBoysMakingNoise” before they got the idea to make a Harlem Shake video. They often use a school classroom to shoot their videos, which they make as entertainment for their classmates and the community.

Therefore, as in the two other case studies, Yono was very surprised when, a week after posting the video to YouTube, he and 35 other classmates were called down to the office and given suspensions for their roles in either the Harlem Shake video, another previous video which has since been taken down or both.

“I think the suspension [we] got was very unfair because we had permission and we didn’t harm anyone,” Yono said. “We did all our videos with no intent to hurt anyone and we are sorry if we offended people.”

Yono said that the teacher who granted the group access to the classroom “didn’t care because we had shot videos in there before.”

The issues the school had with the video, according to Yono, were the use of a live animal – a duck — in the video, the lack of shirts on some of the boys and overall conduct during the video.

Kim Root, Director of Communications and Community Relations for Milford, gave another reason to The Oakland Press. “With the increase of social media … these things can lead to copycat videos and kids trying to push the envelope,” Root said.

LoMonte does not see Root’s statement as a valid reason for suspensions. “You definitely cannot suspend people just because you anticipate people copying them in a disruptive way,” he said.

However, LoMonte does feel that Milford has the most valid case against the students of the three cases presented. “If [they shot the video] on school grounds and without teacher supervision, there is at least a question of whether [they’re] violating school rules,” he said.

Milford has a rule against animals on campus other than service animals, and the kids were technically in violation of that rule.

“If [the suspensions] were about the pet, then that’s not the content [of the video]. If it’s not about the content then it’s not a first amendment violation,” LoMonte said.

LoMonte did say that, because the students had permission from a teacher and did the video after school hours in an empty classroom, it is hard to say that they were disruptive and the content of the video is protected by the first amendment. However, if the suspensions were as a result of rule violations such as the animal rule or a dress code and not the content of the video, then the school has a solid case. In essence, it all hinges on what the school suspended the 36 kids for. As the administration has not given any statement regarding the suspensions, it is impossible to say.

While LoMonte is hardly arguing that schools cannot suggest that students take down videos that they deem inappropriate, he feels that granting suspensions is “very harsh,” especially when the videos could possibly be under the protection of the first amendment.

What we can all take from these three Harlem Shake case studies is that it is vitally important that students know their first amendment rights. Schools cannot violate your First Amendment rights unless very stringent criteria are met. Unless you threaten someone, encourage unlawful activity, disrupt the school day or violate school rules, there is very little schools can do.

While I’m hardly suggesting that everyone make Harlem Shake videos, it is important that we are informed. Without the knowledge of due process and our first amendment rights, we could either be unnecessarily pushed around or unknowingly act in ways not protected by the Constitution. Let’s make sure no more students are suspended for funny videos.

 

Put Down the Guns, America

By Steve Helmeci
March 14, 2013
Opinion

PLUM BOROUGH, Pa. – I’m sure we’ve all heard about the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting late last year. It’s a depressing topic, and everyone would agree that the shooting was a horrendous, saddening act. However, it called into question the gun culture in America, and I would argue that it’s time that we worked to reverse this country’s propensity towards violence.

It’s time for full-scale gun control. The production and distribution of handguns and military-style assault rifles to private citizens should be made illegal, if only to buck the trend of violence.

By all means, keep the hunting rifles and shotguns. Guns for sport are understandable, even useful for sustenance in some situations. I highly doubt, though, that handguns or semi-automatic assault rifles are necessary for hunting.

It is appalling to me that 33 people die daily in this country from gun violence, mostly precipitated by personal handguns or assault rifles. That makes 12,045 people a year on average. It’s despicable.

Despite the propensity for some people with mental illnesses to commit heinous crimes, it can be proven that access to firearms only increases the carnage. In China, on the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, a man entered a school with the intent to murder. Not a single person was killed, though, because the man entered with a knife, not a gun. I think it’s safe to assume that he was not mentally stable, so, that makes the death totals guns-26, knives-0 in the same circumstance.

The arguments for having personal guns baffle me. When the Second Amendment was written, it provided for militias to protect the American citizens from foreign invasion or attacks by Native Americans. These issues simply don’t exist anymore. We have the largest and most formidable army in the world, nullifying the threat of foreign invasion as well as the need for citizen militias. I don’t think we have to worry about Native Americans as a threat anymore, either.

Benjamin Franklin himself said that the Constitution was created to be amended and changed with the times. In case it has gone unnoticed, the times have changed massively since 1790, and we need to adapt to ensure peace and tranquility at home.

As for the self-defense argument, you’ll be far more likely to use your gun to kill yourself or a family member than a criminal. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 19,766 suicides by firearm were committed in 2011. And, according to the Violence Policy Center, having a gun in your house makes it three times more likely that you or someone you care about will be killed by a friend or family member in your own home. Compare those numbers to the FBI’s confirmed average of just 213 self-defense shootings per year over the period of 2005-2010, and suddenly owning a gun to defend yourself doesn’t look as necessary.

After Columbine; Virginia Tech; Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ assassination attempt in Arizona; Aurora, Colorado; Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide; the Oregon shopping mall; Sandy Hook; and the countless other horrific acts of gun violence that occur daily from homicides to robberies and assassination attempts, you’d think we would have seen enough.

68% of all murders in the United States were committed with personal firearms, and, based on a 10-year trend studied by the Center for Disease Control, gun deaths will number 33,000 by 2015—an amount that would exceed the projected number of automobile deaths in the same year. Guns are a major problem, and it needs to be remedied.

It won’t be immediate. It’ll be fought by gun lobbyists and owners alike, but if making the production and distribution of handguns and assault rifles illegal takes a few guns off the street and saves a few people each year, then we’re doing our job as civilized humans.

It’s not too late to reverse the awful gun culture in this country. Let’s make sure those 20 children did not die in vain. Let’s make sure none of the countless victims of gun violence died in vain.

Students’ Online Rights: Cyberspace’s Uncharted Territory

By Steve Helmeci
Jan. 7, 2013

PLUM BOROUGH, Pa. – Between Twitter, Facebook, and text messaging, students have at their fingertips a host of new ways to express themselves and to voice their grievances. However, the success of these different media serves to call into question the issue of what rights students have online.

From the streets of Cairo, Egypt, to nearby Plum Borough, Pennsylvania, students are exercising their right to protest what they deem unsatisfactory. When the recent Plum Senior High School Twitter campaign, #brownbagginit, trended in the local area, it resulted in the abandonment of the school-provided service for packed lunches by a majority of students.

While it is not apparent that any students suffered any punishment as a result of the Plum lunch boycott, punitive measures have been handed down across the country due to student online activism. However, such punishments are often appealed through the court system, and more often than not the courts have sided with the student.

For example, in Layshock vs. Hermitage School District, a Pennsylvania court upheld the First Amendment rights of a student who created a parody MySpace account of a school administrator. Even cases such as Tinker vs. Des Moines upheld the First Amendment rights of students.

Because of precedents set by various federal and state court cases, students have a fair amount of First Amendment protection under the law. While individual states have their own laws and precedents, an organization called the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in Washington, D.C. is mandated to protect the First Amendment rights of students across the country.

According to Frank LoMonte, Executive Director of the SPLC, Pennsylvania is a state where the courts have not come to a definitive ruling; therefore there is little in the way of precedent to protect students’ rights. However, “students should always appeal discipline [for matters regarding their rights] all the way up the chain of command,” LoMonte said. “Unless you threaten the school with violence, it should not materially and substantially effect the school day.”

Another point LoMonte made was that simply being annoying to a person or isolated incidents of rudeness online should not result in punitive measures being meted out by school staff. “It’s that person’s fault for bringing it to school if you’re only annoying them,” he said. While LoMonte does not condone online bullying, he does not think that simply embarrassing someone should result in punishment by the school.

In grade-level assemblies earlier this year at Mt. Lebanon High School, Unit Three Principal Mr. Peter Berg vaguely referenced a policy regarding punishment for the activities of students on online social networking sites. The brief overview left Mt. Lebanon students wondering exactly what was acceptable online and what sort of disciplinary action the school could take regarding online social networking.

One of the points of contention for students was whether or not school administrators had the right to visit students’ private social networking pages.

“We don’t,” Principal Berg said. “Let me clarify that. The school is never in the position to go out and look at students’ private Facebook pages, so the notion that any of the unit principals here are generally getting on your pages and looking at them, that’s not accurate.”

While school officials have the right to act on issues deemed outside the protection of the First Amendment, such as harassment or assault, they never become involved in online incidents unless they are handed a hard copy or print-out of the issue at hand, according to Berg.

Even then, the school is not always in a position to address the issue. “The bullying policy is very explicit about what we can follow up on,” Berg said. “The policy talks about behaviors that are severe or persistent in nature and that fall under harassment.”

School administrators operate on the basis of reasonable cause. While it is a far lower standard than law enforcement’s probable cause, school officials cannot enter private social networking sites for any reason, even in the case of a tip to administrators about illicit online activity. “[A student] coming in as a hearsay person saying this is happening on Facebook doesn’t help me,” Berg said. “At that point I’d say bring it to me, and when the hard copy is sitting in front of me I’d have a chance to read it, interpret it, and to make some subjective judgments about the persistence, severity, pervasiveness, and if this is really impacting the school environment.”

Another point of confusion was the language “interferes with the educational process” regarding illicit student expression. This language was used during the grade level assemblies and is in the student handbook as well.

“It has to be significant,” Berg said. Unless a situation is deemed persistent and pervasive, the school cannot and will not act against students.

Students should be aware, however, that while the school is relatively unable to act with regards to goings-on outside of school, administrators have more access to information shared with the school’s network and wifi because they have oversight.

In reality, there are not too many differences between the policy of the school and the SPLC. The main point of contention is the grey area created by the lack of precedent law that exists when it comes to social media issues. The school will often side with the distressed student, while the SPLC will more often than not side with the student who is arguing for their First Amendment rights.