Federal lawsuit claims school violated rights, left out relevant information
ark Hill is facing a federal lawsuit that presents the question of whether the school district violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of students when school officials handed out a punishment to four freshmen for posting alleged racially charged comments online.
According to the 28-page lawsuit filed Friday, Nov. 12 in the Western District of Missouri, one student was expelled and three students received a 180-day suspension for an incident that occurred in the late afternoon hours of Sept. 16 on a school bus traveling to an away football game.
The lawsuit claims, among other things, that the incident was far different than how the school district portrayed it to the public.
According to the lawsuit, there was Student A, who identifies as a biracial African American and Brazilian, conversing with another Student X, who identifies as African American, “about slavery and needing a job, which both found humorous.” Student A began typing a petition on Change.org entitled “Start slavery again,” states the suit. According to the lawsuit, when Student A showed it to Student X and several other students sitting adjacent to him, they all found it humorous, and then Student A officially posted it on Change.org. Student A also posted a link to it on the football team’s SnapChat Group.
When the bus arrived back to Park Hill South after the football game, nearly a dozen people “Liked” the petition and four students posted comments, including Student A, claiming “.needs a job.” Student B, who identifies as a Caucasian, commented, “I love slavery” and Student C, who also identifies as a Caucasian, commented, “I hate blacks.” Student D, who identifies as a biracial Caucasian and Asian, posted, “I want a slave.”
Over the course of 24 hours, word spread fast. The school principal communicated to the staff and families of students enrolled at Park Hill South that a “racist petition” had been spread around. Parents and citizens expressed their concern, denouncing the alleged racist acts.
As the lawsuit tells it, the petition was nothing more than a humorous joke that should not have been taken literally.
School officials, on the other hand, interviewed the students and perceived their behavior as a direct violation to school policies for cell phone use, disorderly conduct, disruptive behavior, and harassment.
In a Park Hill Bulletin emailed to parents on Sept. 27, Superintendent Dr. Janette Cowherd said: “Our immediate response was to identify the students involved in this matter, and to follow our board policies and state statutes in the discipline of this incident. We are also providing counselors to support and care for students who have been hurt by this.”
The lawsuit alleges that the district left out relevant information on each student’s race that would have provided some perspective, but instead fed a “growing public belief that racist white students had been the source of the petition.”
Under growing criticism, the suit contends, the school board expelled Student A and suspended the three students who commented on the petition for a 180-day period.
In light of the fact that the student who drafted the petition identifies as a biracial African American and Brazilian, and another student who commented identifies as a Caucasian and Asian, the suit contends, the district erroneously fed the public “firestorm,” leading to an unfair level of scrutiny. The suit alleges the district’s narrow narrative influenced how people reacted.
This incident “arose from a laughing and bantering group of multi-racial ninth graders for no purpose other than an attempt to be funny, making fun of racial stereotypes,” states the lawsuit submitted by attorneys Arthur Benson and Jamie Lansford.
Benson is a prominent civil rights attorney based in Kansas City.
The lawsuit also alleges the district violated provisions of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment protects people from any law that will “(d)eprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
“The expulsion and long suspensions denied and are denying plaintiffs (students) access to educational opportunities and services to which they have property rights and rights under the Missouri State Constitution,” states the suit.
The federal lawsuit claims the students are entitled to a preliminary injunction permitting them to return to school and asks the court to require the district to make up for the students’ lost educational opportunities.
The lawsuit also claims the seven-member school board and several school officials were driven by an “evil motive or intent” that may demonstrate a “complete and deliberate indifference to, and conscious disregard for the constitutional and legal rights” of the students.
Not only do the parents of the students involved seek punitive damages from the school district, but they also ask for attorney fees and expenses to be paid for by the district.
Listed as defendants in the lawsuit are the school district, the seven school board members, the district superintendent, the district’s director of student services, and the principal at Park Hill South High School.
The four plaintiffs in the case are identified in the lawsuit only as Plaintiffs A, B, C and D. According to the lawsuit, all were members of the freshman football team at Park Hill South.
Reached for school district reaction to the lawsuit, Nicole Kirby, the district’s director of communication services, provided the following statement on behalf of Park Hill:
“As this lawsuit describes, we took prompt, decisive action to enforce our policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and uncivil behavior. The suit shares that we expelled one student and suspended three others for 180 days. We will be able to share further details when we respond to this lawsuit in court.”