Parent Lawsuit Update: School Board Fires Back

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Parent Lawsuit Update: School Board Fires Back

A Richmond-based law firm representing the Albemarle County School Board has filed a series of pleas and motions in the county Circuit Court case in which five sets of western district parents and their children are suing the board, Superintendent Matt Haas, and Assistant Superintendent Bernard Hairston. The parents claim that an anti-racism curriculum piloted last spring at Henley Middle School violates their children’s constitutional rights, and they request that the curriculum be discontinued or that parents be allowed to opt their children out of that instruction.

The lawsuit, launched in December, claims that students’ freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and due process rights are violated by the Henley curriculum. The plaintiffs claim that the anti-racism lessons segregate all students into “dominant” and “subordinate” societal groups based on immutable qualities such as skin color, religion, and gender status, and that they unlawfully discriminate against those groups deemed dominant (“white, middle class, Christian, and cisgender”). The suit also claims that students who question the curriculum’s definitions of racism can face disciplinary charges for “racist actions.” (See the Gazette’s February issue for more details.)

The law firm of Harmon Claytor Corrigan Wellman, representing the School Board, filed four motions on January 31 in response to the plaintiffs’ complaint, each of which lays out part of the board’s defense strategy. The first is a Demurrer, which objects to each of the six Causes of Action cited by the parent plaintiffs. The Demurrer makes several assertions: that the plaintiffs do not have a private cause of action in this case, that they do not allege sufficient facts to support their claims, that they are unreasonably interpreting school division policy, and that they have no fundamental right to dictate the content of the curriculum offered by a public school. 

Rather than presenting a legal defense to the claims themselves, a Demurrer basically tests whether the plaintiffs’ claims as pleaded are insufficient to proceed (sometimes informally referred to as a “So what?” filing). The judge may either sustain the Demurrer and allow the plaintiffs to fix the problems in their complaint, or overrule it, in which case the School Board must answer the substance of the complaint within a specified time period.

The second filing is a Plea in Bar, a plea that sets out a single set of facts which, if proven true, would bar the case from going forward entirely. The School Board’s attorneys argue that neither the parents nor the students have standing to pursue their claims because none of them “has sustained an actual injury as a result of the policy, its implementation, or any threatened enforcement.” 

The defendants contend that the students did not experience harassment and were not threatened with enforcement of student discipline as a result of the lessons. Although one plaintiff alleges that they were forced to withdrew their student from Henley and enrolled them in private school to avoid the anti-racism curriculum, the School Board argues that the withdrawal proves that the parent had the freedom to exercise school choice and was thus not harmed. The Plea in Bar also claims “sovereign immunity” for the school division and Haas and Hairston, which could shield them from liability in this case.

The third filing is a Motion Craving Oyer, which requests that the plaintiffs submit a complete set of documents related to the complaint, in particular the set of classroom slides and materials used in the anti-racism curriculum. The fourth filing is a Motion to Dismiss and/or Drop for Misjoinder, in which the School Board argues that “the seventeen plaintiffs are all differently situated and … they have separate and distinct claims that preclude them from joining together in one lawsuit.” In Virginia, a case is not usually dismissed for the misjoinder of parties, but may result in some complaints being severed and proceeded with separately.

Next Moves

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the law firm representing the plaintiff families in the lawsuit, filed a Preliminary Injunction on February 3. In it, ADF argues that the plaintiffs “have already been harmed by the policy and will experience ongoing harm if policy implementation continues. Plaintiffs have experienced impermissible racial and religious hostility, pressure to affirm and embrace the policy as truth, and interference with their parental rights.”

The injunction requests that the defendants refrain from promoting racial and religious stereotypes, threatening to punish students for alternative viewpoints, and requiring students to adopt and affirm the policy’s ideology. It also asks that plaintiffs be given the opportunity to review any anti-racism policy-based instruction at least a week before it is taught, and to opt their children out of that instruction without penalty. A judge will rule on the Preliminary Injunction before proceeding with the issues of the case.

Meanwhile, the school division is proceeding apace with its plans to create a full-year curriculum focusing on “relationships” that will be taught at all middle schools in the county. “The lawsuit has no impact on the work on this curriculum,” said Phil Giaramita, spokesman for the county school division. “To broaden our research beyond just our own educators, the committee drafting the curriculum engaged a consultant last year.” To implement a new curriculum in schools, the committee must present the plan to the School Board for approval. “It now looks as if the presentation to the School Board will be this summer with an implementation date of the new school year [fall of 2022],” said Giaramita. 

More about this new planned curriculum will be in a future issue of the Gazette. 

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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.

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