Park Hill files response to lawsuit
sing several attorneys, the Park Hill School District responds to a recent lawsuit that questions whether district officials violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of students when school officials punished four freshmen for posting alleged racially charged comments online.
According to the 25-page document filed Monday, Nov. 22 in the United States District Court – Western Division of Missouri, Park Hill defends its decision with 22 exhibits and presents several surprising revelations to support its opposition to the students’ request for immediate provisional remedy from the court.
The lawsuit is based on an incident that occurred at about 2:30 p.m. on Sept. 16 on a school bus traveling to an away football game. The four students (plaintiffs) in the case are minors so they are identified in the lawsuit only as Plaintiffs A, B, C and D.
As the lawsuit filed by the four freshmen at Park Hill South claims, 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. 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.
Later that evening, 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.”
A player forwarded a screenshot of the petition to fellow students outside of the football team’s SnapChat group, which prompted a student to email the high school principal about the petition at 5:44 p.m. The next day, Park Hill South Principal Dr. Kerrie Herren interviewed the four students and charged them with violating school policies for cell phone use, disorderly conduct, disruptive behavior, and harassment. Dr. Herren suspended all four students for 10-school days.
Upon further review, the superintendent extended their suspension for another 170-school days, which is the maximum amount of time under Missouri law, states the lawsuit. The students appealed their long-term suspensions to the Park Hill Board of Education, where they jointly presented their side of the story over a 10-hour period, calling 16 witnesses, states the suit.
Ultimately, the school board held that the students had been disciplined for a reasonable length of time, rejecting the appeals of Students, B, C, and D. Additionally, the board of education used their legal authority to expel Student A.
The students jointly filed a federal lawsuit against multiple defendants, including the seven member school board, the district superintendent, the district’s director of student services, and the principal at Park Hill South High School alleging the 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.”
Park Hill’s attorneys’ claim that Student A, referred to as “the ringleader” in the defendants’ answer, blatantly disregarded a teammate’s request to delete the petition and contend that his parents identified him as “White” when they registered him for school, not as a biracial, African American and Brazilian as described in the lawsuit.
It is uncontested that the district handed out the most severe punishment under state law, but the district contends it didn’t leave the students up a creek without a paddle.
“The district is coordinating with Missouri Connections Academy, an accredited online public school, so that they can receive educational services while they are away from Park Hill South. Each of the students will receive credit for the classes they take at Missouri Connections Academy, and those credits count toward Park Hill’s graduation requirements,” wrote attorneys Joseph Hatley, Stephanie Lovett-Bowman and Olawale Akinmoladun in the district’s court documents.
As for the lawsuits allegation that the district violated provisions of the First Amendment, the plaintiffs’ answer asserts the district did not violate the students’ rights to freedom of speech or expression because the incident was a significant disruption that occurred during school hours, while traveling to a school-sponsored event. The suit goes on to say, that school districts have the authority to discipline students for “racially charged expression that is reasonably forecast to cause a material disruption.”
Not only did the petition go viral after a teammate posted it to Twitter, with the hashtag #BlackTwitter, the district’s attorneys claim several school officials spent an estimated “310 hours dealing with the fallout from the petition” and had substitute teachers decline assignments at Park Hill South.
A further indication of the complexity and distraction of the incident, says the suit, is that “the district’s superintendent, Dr. Jeanette Cowherd, has been in public education for nearly 40 years, and the petition is the most disruptive incident she has ever dealt with.”
“They stirred up deep and disruptive racial tensions in precisely the same way they would be stirred up if a student walked down the halls of Park Hill South waving a Confederate flag,” states the school district’s court documents.
The legal document also addresses the students joint request to motion the court for preliminary injunction relief, which would permit the students to immediately return to the classroom and possibly require the district to make up for the students’ lost educational opportunities. Generally, a preliminary injunction serves as a fast provisional remedy from the court to address the time elapses between filing a lawsuit and the trial.
Park Hill opposes reinstating the students at Park Hill South, claiming it would almost certainly “reignite the disruption” that has befallen the district.
“(T)he lengthy suspension of three of the plaintiffs gives enough time and space for the entire Park Hill South community to process the aftermath of the petition, and get to a place where plaintiffs can return with as little disruption as possible,” states Park Hill’s court documents.
In particular if Student B is allowed to immediately return, Park Hill’s court documents say, it would be against public interest since he has declined to cooperate with district officials on a separate and distinct matter. Allegedly Student B and another student were overheard discussing plans to stage a school shooting, states court documents. Should the court grant preliminary injunction relief, the student “would be walking the halls of the very school he talked about shooting up just a few weeks earlier, something that is certainly not in the public interest,” states court documents.
The school district says Dr. Terri Deayon, director of access, inclusion and family engagement, has spent countless hours addressing the crisis caused by the petition, rather than focusing on fostering and improving the educational experience for the district’s minority students, which she was promoted to do this school year.
“The petition and its aftermath upended her plans, especially because this all happened so early in the school year,” states court documents.