KANSAS CITY – A little more than two months after students circulated a petition calling for a return to slavery at a Missouri high school, a lawsuit has been filed against the Park Hill School District, the board of education and the superintendent on behalf of the students who were disciplined for commenting on the petition.
According to the 28-page federal lawsuit filed on Nov. 12, one student was expelled from the school and three others were suspended.
According to the suit, discussion over the petition began on Sept. 16 when the Park Hill South ninth grade football team was on its way to a game. Plaintiff A, whom the suit identifies as being Black and Brazilian, and Student X, whom it identifies as being Black, “bantered” about slavery and needing a job. It alleges that Plaintiff A created a Change.org petition to “Start slavery again.” The petition was posted to a Snapchat group consisting of other members of the team before being shared outside the group. Plaintiffs B, C and D commented things like, “I love slavery”, “I hate blacks” and “I want a slave.” The suit identifies Plaintiffs B and C as white and D as white and Asian.
On Sept. 17, according to the suit, the district interviewed the students involved and subsequently charged them with violating school policy, suspending them for 10 days “with recommendation for long-term suspension or expulsion.”
After a hearing Nov. 3 one student, listed as “Plaintiff A” in the suit, was expelled and the other three students who commented were suspended for 180 days.
The parents of the students involved are now suing, claiming the district violated their “constitutional rights to freedom of speech under the First Amendment and to Due Process and Equal Protection under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The suit alleges that the school environment was “infused with frequent, casual use of racial and ethnic epithets and slurs,” and that teachers and school administrators tolerated such language and behavior. The suit states that coaches and district adults “mostly condoned heavily racialized interactions among the members of the ninth grade football team.”
Park Hill School District spokesperson Nicole Kirby said after the lawsuit was filed that the district “took prompt, decisive action to enforce our policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and uncivil behavior.”
She confirmed via email the discipline outlined in the lawsuit and said the district could comment further when the litigation heads to court.
Across the country, other students have successfully argued against school disciplinary action using the First Amendment. David R. Dow, Cullen Professor at the University of Houston Law Center, does not think the parents will be successful making this case in court.
“While students do not lose their First Amendment free speech rights once they are attending public school, the public schools do have power to punish certain speech,” Dow told the PBS NewsHour via email.
He referred to a Supreme Court case decided in June, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L, in which a high school cheerleader “expressed frustration with the school and the school’s cheerleading squad” by using “vulgar language and gestures” on Snapchat after not making the varsity team. As punishment, the school suspended her from the team for the upcoming year, prompting her to sue on the grounds that her First Amendment rights were violated.
The United States Supreme Court sided with the student. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority, in part citing, the 1969 Tinker decision, which also reaffirmed student speech. However in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. it did not completely rule out a school’s right to limit speech outside of school.
“The special characteristics that give schools additional license to regulate student speech do not always disappear when that speech takes place off campus,” the decision states. It goes on to list a school’s regulatory interest as “serious or severe bullying or harassment, targeting particular individuals; threats aimed at teachers or other students,” among other things.
“The Supreme Court emphasized that the school has the power to punish students for their speech, regardless of whether it occurs on or off campus, if that speech is disruptive or even if it targets certain students,” Dow said in an email.
Gregory Magarian, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, said the case out of Missouri is a First Amendment issue. “Generally speaking, students have a First Amendment interest ” however, Magarian agreed that “the courts give schools a lot of discretion,” which he said could be the case’s “biggest obstacle.”
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified “punitive or exemplary damages,” and “a temporary or preliminary injunction permitting them to return to school” as well as to have their records expunged.
Magarian noted it may be difficult for the plaintiffs to receive damages. “What this case comes down to is the expulsion and the suspension,” he said.
Parents say they’re concerned about widespread racist incidents throughout the Park Hill School District. In September parent Joshua Clark told the NewsHour he decided to remove his daughter from one of the district elementary schools altogether after contacting district and school leaders multiple times about her being called racist names in the classroom. “It just seems as if Park Hill School District is continuously playing catch-up and apologizing and acknowledging racist behavior that goes on in the district after the fact,” Clark stated in an email to the superintendent earlier this year.
At a board meeting nearly a week after the petition made its rounds another parent, Jeff Holmes, told board members he felt this was in fact “bigger than a school district issue.” Park Hill South High School has been at the center of other recent racism controversy. In 2020 the district made headlines after the Park Hill South principal made the girls volleyball team remove shirts that read “together we rise” before a game. He later apologized when a petition circulated supporting the shirts as a show of racial unity.