Client loses out on graduation, but wins in Court of Appeals

Student in cap and gown stands in front of car decorated with balloons, holding sign, "The few the proud Class of 2022."

A senior in high school and a member of the homecoming court, William Meyer was 17 years old when he was handcuffed by police, taken from East Central High School and booked into Lino Lakes Correctional Center. He had no idea why. He’d have to wait an entire weekend to find out.

A nightmarish scenario for anyone, for William — who struggles with general anxiety disorder, depressive disorder and ADHD — it was especially so. He wasn’t allowed to talk with his parents until his third day at Lino Lakes and wasn’t released until his fourth.

“I was beyond confused. I had so many questions. I kept asking, ’why?’” William says, still incredulous. “Finally, they gave me a paper that said something about making terroristic threats. Sunday, I was allowed a Zoom call with my parents. I had so many questions. I couldn’t talk fast enough. I knew I was in the wrong place. There were so many weird people there. But one guy, Austin, was really nice. He told me, ‘As long as you didn’t do anything, you’ll get out of here.’”

That day came Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. It marked the beginning of William’s 14-month legal battle. A battle that ended with a victory at the Minnesota Court of Appeals, Feb. 21, 2023 — waged by Legal Aid Attorney Paulo Castro of the Minnesota Disability Law Center.

But what had William done? What was his offense? “He posted something he thought was funny to social media during a lockdown drill and was thrown in jail for it,” said his mother Karin, an English teacher at the same school her son attended. Two years later, she still finds it hard to fathom. “So absurd. The more that gets unpacked from this case, the more bizarre it becomes.”

The problem was in the background sound of the Snapchat post — showing the flashing lights in his shop class and William’s quip that it was a rave — a teacher could be heard, making a reference to a shooter. William didn’t hear that. But a student at another school did, when he saw the post, and alerted his own principal. That put in motion a second lockdown at East Central by police. This time it wasn’t a drill.

After his jail stint, William was suspended and ultimately expelled. Following an expulsion hearing, and an appeal to the Minnesota Department of Education, MDE sided with William. They ordered the school to dismiss the expulsion and bring him back to campus. The school said no, choosing to appeal the decision.

Castro said that course of action ran down the clock on William’s senior year, leaving him at home to learn. “Even when expelled, if a student does not enroll at a different school district, the home district still must provide alternative educational services. We were able to see that the school met its responsibility in educating William on a home-study plan in accordance with the law.”

But a return to campus would be up to the Court of Appeals, which wouldn’t make a ruling for another year — after William’s graduation. Karin, added. “The school also tried to get us to transfer. We knew that was wrong.” The PACER Center helped in the beginning but advised the Meyers to seek the help of the Minnesota Disability Law Center at Legal Aid. “We are so fortunate to have found Paulo. He was so impactful. I am so proud of him!”

“What the school wanted,” Castro said, “was to leave a mark of expulsion on William’s record. They argued his expulsion was necessary so the record of it would send a message to others. But the court accepted our mootness argument.” Moot because the public is not privy to student records, therefore no one would be on the receiving end of a message.

How did the entire experience affect William?

“Well,” he says, “after that [weekend in Lino Lakes], I don’t speed. I know I never want to be there ever again.” On the positive side, “Kids I knew, and kids I never talked to before, blew up my phone [with words of support]. In person, too, they would come up to me.”

As a teacher, Karin wanted to leave the school immediately but felt it important to be there for her students, as a trusted adult to talk to. “The students held mini protests for William. It meant a lot.” She managed to finish the school year before moving to a different school.

When East Central High denied William attendance at his class graduation ceremony, he arranged his own celebration at a nearby gas station. “I parked my car at Banning Junction, had balloons and a couple of signs. It felt to me like a hundred kids showed up, but it was about 50 or 60.”

As for the court victory, William says he’s overcome. “I have almost no words,” except to say, “It was such a relief and I am deeply inspired.”

Following graduation, William joined the Army National Guard and successfully trained to be a Humvee mechanic. Today, he is employed by Jensen Tractor. Mom says, today, the 20-year-old comes home from work, then spends evenings helping his father, John, repair the family’s tractors. “He’s dirty, tired and happy.”