By Janelle Griffith - NBC News
Aniya Harmon was deeply shocked to learn that an image of her exposed chest had become a meme and that the mockery had been shared in May with employees at Sussex Central High School in Delaware, where she studied.
But, according to her and her mother, Tosha White, an aggravating factor has accentuated the annoyance: they believe that those responsible for the meme were two directors of their own school.
Harmon and White say Bradley Layfield and Matthew Jones, the school's principal and vice principal, respectively, used footage from the school's security cameras to create a meme of their breasts.
In the image, Harmon's face is replaced by that of singer Janet Jackson, in reference to the well-known incident during the 2004 Super Bowl show in which Justin Timberlake exposed the artist's chest.
Those allegations are also contained in a lawsuit filed in Delaware Superior Court in New Castle County." I'm still upset, hurt, disappointed," complains Harmon, who graduated this year and is already in college.
Aniya Harmon.Courtesy Ryan Julison
Harmon sued school officials this month, alleging his privacy was invaded. The complaint also names Sussex Central High School and the Indian River School District as defendants.
A school representative declined to comment on the situation Wednesday, recommending NBC News contact the school district, which said it "does not comment on pending litigation." David Maull, a spokesman for the Indian River School District, also declined to comment on the defendants' employment situation, saying "it's a personal matter."
Layfield's attorney, Thomas S. Neuberger, denied any wrongdoing by his client. He said the school principal was placed on leave on May 22. Jones did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The incident that sparked the meme
According to Harmon and the lawsuit, around 7:30 a.m. on May 17, she was walking toward her classroom when she encountered two students arguing. Harmon explained that he told the young woman, who was screaming, to shut up and at that point "yelled obscenities at her" and "pounced on her threateningly."
[College student shot dead in South Carolina after missing home]
A woman who works at the school intervened and pulled Harmon "hard," causing her clothes to disarrange, exposing one of her breasts, according to the lawsuit. Neuberger claims that the young woman's chest was exposed while she was involved in a fight, which Harmon refutes.
The lawsuit alleges Jones collaborated with Layfield and "possibly others" to create the meme and that Jones showed it to other assistant principals, administrators, teachers and others on his laptop. At least six people had access to Harmon's footage, the legal document states.
White said that a few days after the incident, he started hearing the meme circulating.
Ex-teacher charged with multiple counts of sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old
Sept. 13, 202302:26
"I didn't have any proof that it was my daughter, but all the facts started to add up," White said.
She said she didn't receive confirmation until eight days after the incident, when the deputy superintendent called her to schedule a meeting. At that point, according to White and his attorney, the two men were placed on administrative leave.
The superintendent didn't mention the video or meme, White said, until she asked if the meeting was because of that. White never met with the deputy superintendent and decided to hire an attorney.
"Rage, pain and disbelief"
"I was shocked. I couldn't take it in right away," White said. "And then, when the shock passed, I got more anger, pain, disbelief. So many emotions."
He added: "And that still happens to me. I still have all those emotions."
Without naming Harmon, Layfield and Jones specifically, Delaware State Police spokeswoman India Sturgis said the agency is "investigating any possible crime related to an incident that occurred at Sussex Central High School in collaboration with the Delaware Department of Justice."
Student Who Shot at Texas Timberview School Pleads Not Guilty
July 19, 202300:37
"Unfortunately, we cannot provide an estimated timeline for the investigation, because inquiries can often be unpredictable, and it is not uncommon for unexpected developments to arise," Sturgis said, adding that state police could not share further information.
Emeka Igwe, Harmon's lawyer, said what happened to him is reprehensible and that the purpose of the lawsuit is to hold the administrators accountable.
[Man shoots at car turning around in driveway of New York home, kills 'innocent young woman']
"No person in authority should do that to a student and we want to make sure they don't go back to work in any school setting," Igwe said. "Upon completion of the investigation, we expect criminal charges to be filed against these two individuals."
The lawsuit seeks compensation for damages
Neuberger said Layfield was not involved in the creation or circulation of the meme, and that he showed the security video to nine people, including state troopers and some staff members such as administrators and teachers, with the intention of "keeping children safe." He also claimed that his client was following procedures when he did that.
"If you ever release the video," he said, "you can see that you don't even realize what happened to the clothes because of the distance."
Virginia Teacher Shot by Six-Year-Old Student Sues School District for $40 Million
June 14, 202300:26
Neuberger blamed Jones saying he created and shared it.
Neuberger said the Delaware State Board of Education informed Layfield that it is investigating him and that his teaching license may be revoked. The board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"My client is innocent and is being used for monetary purposes," Neuberger said.
[Dadeville Mourning: Residents Hold Vigil for Four Young Men Killed at Party]
The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive damages as well as attorneys' fees. White said it's been hard to see how her daughter has been fading since the image spread.
"His studies and his work are the strategies he uses to get his mind off what's going on," White said. "It's been tough for all of us."