A student’s Internet prank has cost him his high school’s endorsement for a National Merit scholarship and undercut his chances for admission at several of the nation’s top colleges.
Paul Kim, a 17-year-old senior at Newport High School, said he couldn’t believe four years of hard work - which produced a 3.8 grade-point average and a near-perfect SAT score could be jeopardized by “something so trivial - a joke I came up with one afternoon.”
The material, put on the Internet in February, was “a satire of the school,” he said. But it referred readers to a Playboy centerfold and two articles of a sexual nature.
In March, Principal Karin Cathey revoked school endorsement of his scholarship application and advised all the colleges he’d applied to of the action.
“Her main argument … was that what I did was immoral and objectionable,” Kim said.
The American Civil Liberties Union contends the move violated Kim’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process.
Without advance notice to Kim or his family, Cathey imposed “harsh sanctions … that were extremely disproportionate to his conduct and … have had severe repercussions on his future,” the ACLU said in a May 5 letter to Bellevue School District Superintendent Don R. O’Neil.
The letter seeks compensation from the district for the $2,000 scholarship, a letter of apology to Kim from Cathey and the district, and letters to all the colleges - “subject to our approval” - outlining the situation.
Kim was subsequently accepted by Columbia, his second choice. The role of Cathey’s letters in his rejection by Harvard, his first choice, may never be known, the ACLU letter said.
Cathey said Tuesday she was not free to discuss specifics, citing federal law protecting student confidentiality.
“I would hope that people would credit me with some common sense and good judgment and … understand that sometimes there’s more than what appears on the surface,” Cathey said.
She said the matter involved the school because the item was named the Unofficial Newport High School Home Page.
“Clearly if I didn’t think it had something to do with the school I wouldn’t have taken the action,” she said.
The school district has taken no position on the matter pending completion of an investigation by its attorney, Sharon Howard, spokeswoman Ann Oxrieder said Tuesday.
Kim created an unofficial “home page,” or electronic flier, about his school that included a section titled “Favorite Subjects of Newport High School Students.” Under the category “sex,” Kim referred readers to publicly accessible documents of a sexual nature available elsewhere on the Internet - the centerfold and articles about masturbation and oral sex.
In early March, after word of his spoof got around the district, Kim was called in by two school officials.
On March 28, Cathey told him she had withdrawn the school’s scholarship endorsement.
She said his actions in “distributing pornography” reflected poor character, Kim told ACLU attorneys.
Kim was concerned other actions might be taken, but Cathey told him “the matter was closed,” the attorneys said in their letter to O’Neil.
The next day, however, Kim got a call from Columbia University seeking an explanation of a fax sent by Cathey.
It retracted a March 23 letter - also sent to all the schools - in which Cathey said she was withdrawing the school’s endorsement of Kim for the scholarship. The letter also said the school was withdrawing any recommendations sent on Kim’s behalf although, the ACLU noted, no such recommendations had been sent.