RIVERSIDE, Mo. (AP) — A federal judge declined to lift the expulsion or suspensions handed out to four suburban Kansas City high school students who were disciplined for their involvement in an online petition to “start slavery again.”

U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough acknowledged in his ruling Tuesday that the four students from Park Hill South High School will likely suffer harm if they aren’t allowed to return to the school immediately or ever, in one student’s case. But he said their lawsuit was unlikely to succeed on the merits of its claims if the case went to trial, radio station KCUR reported.

The four ninth-graders sued the Park Hill school district and several administrators after one was expelled and three others were suspended for 180 days over the online petition.

A district spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment and it wasn’t clear when the suspended students would be allowed to return to school.

They were on a bus with the freshman football team last September when one of them drafted a petition on Change.org titled “Start Slavery again” as he was joking with a Black student about jobs and slaves.

The student, who is biracial, later shared the petition on the football team’s Snapchat group. The three other students all commented favorably on the petition.

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Other students reported the petition to school administrators. During an internal investigation, the students admitted their involvement but said the petition was a joke.

In their lawsuit, the students said their First Amendment and due process rights were violated. They contended that racial slurs were common at Park Hill South, “most often in friendly bantering,” and that the instigator of the conversation is Black and was not disciplined.

The students asked to be reinstated and to have the discipline expunged from their school records.

Arthur Benson, the students’ lawyer, said the incident resulted from “youthful bad judgment” that originated among Black and biracial students.

“Three whites boys in similar bad judgment wanted in on the joke, intended only for the freshman players,” Benson said in an email. “This bad judgment was punished as heinous acts that no one now still claims them to be.”

In his order, Bough said that public interest weighed in favor of denying them reinstatement.

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He noted that the incident garnered national attention and prompted some parents and teachers to express concern about students’ safety.

Although Bough said the 14- and 15-year-old boys didn’t intend the petition to be circulated beyond the team, the petition caused “substantial disruption” at the high school and in the district that justified the discipline.

Benson said he had not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling.