School Board Lawsuits Ebb and Flow

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Albemarle County Circuit Court building in downtown Charlottesville. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Two lawsuits have been brought against the Albemarle County School Board (ACSB) within the last four months, both concerning the division’s Anti-Racism policy. The first hearing in Ibañez et al. v. ACSB was held in Albemarle County Circuit Court in Charlottesville on April 22, but ended before the merits of the case could be argued as the presiding judge agreed with the county defendants’ Plea in Bar to dismiss the case for lack of standing.

The Ibañez lawsuit, launched in December, claimed that students’ freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and due process rights were violated by a Henley Middle School anti-racism curriculum that was piloted last spring. The plaintiffs (five local families) claimed that the anti-racism lessons segregated all students into “dominant” and “subordinate” societal groups based on immutable qualities such as skin color, religion, and gender status, and that they unlawfully discriminated against those groups deemed “dominant.” (See the Gazette’s February issue for more details.)

In their Plea in Bar, the school board’s attorneys (Harman Claytor Corrigan Wellman) argued 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.” During the April 22 hearing, Judge Claude Worrell asked two brief questions of the defendant’s attorney before turning to Vincent Wagner, senior counsel with the Center for Parental Rights at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a nonprofit law firm representing the plaintiff families.

“Where does it say in the policy that every white student is racist?” asked Worrell.

“Your honor, it’s how the policy has been implemented in lesson materials and teachers’ required training,” said Wagner. “The injury is in experiencing the program, which required that a student be pulled out by his parents.” He argued that the pilot program violated students’ constitutional rights. 

“That’s just anecdotal,” said Worrell. “There’s no evidence in fact that the lessons are divisive. The court could impose a temporary injunction that prevents ACSB from doing certain things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the anti-racism curriculum could stop being used. Let’s say we do it, does that mean the policy goes away? I think the intellectually honest answer is no.”

“One mixed-race student voiced concerns to his mom who expressed them to the principal, that the child was being divided from his white peers,” said Wagner.

“Have you ever been the only white face in a sea of other races?” said Worrell. “It happens in education that certain people are made to feel uncomfortable about history and their place in it. How do you educate a populace about race without discussing race?”

“That’s not the question, your honor,” said Wagner. “This is not just teaching but personalizing it to students in the room.” Wagner began to describe an exercise in the Henley curriculum that asked students to label themselves as being members of either dominant or subordinate classes, defining attributes such as being white, cisgender, Christian, and middle income as dominant, when Worrell cut him off, raising his voice.

“Come on … What’s wrong with asking children to examine their culture?” said Worrell. “You never make an argument about the problem with teaching a child this way. You tell me that the policy discriminates against white students and it’s just not true. I’ve read all the many hundreds of pages [of briefings] and I don’t see it. You just assert there is discrimination. Why can’t Albemarle County teach its students about racism? You can argue until you’re blue in the face, but the law says exactly what Mr. Capps [the defense attorney] says it does. There is no compulsion here. Why is this actionable?”

“There is a disciplinary aspect to the policy [if students don’t abide by the anti-racist policy]” said Wagner. “The school is compelling students to change the way they think, act, and speak.”

“Isn’t that what education does – change the cadence in which you speak?” said Worrell.

“The difference here is that the division has its own views on the topics and requires students to affirm this view.” Wagner referred to a pyramid exercise in which saying that “colorblindness” is a laudable attribute is deemed racist, and noted that racist speech is punishable by the county’s anti-racism policy.

“In the course of my life in public and private education, students who used the n-word, the way that word is viewed has changed over time, we became aware that’s not an appropriate way to speak about people of color—isn’t there value in telling students not to say they are colorblind in understanding racism?”

“Yes, but it’s compulsion that students adopt particular views, your honor.”

“Where does it say that you have to adopt a view? Who perpetuates racial stereotypes?”

Wagner pointed to a lesson on stereotypes of how white and black people talk.

“You’re being a little bit ridiculous,” said Worrell. “There’s nothing stereotypical here that is pejorative. I reject your premise that the structure of the policy is pejorative. Your parents [plaintiffs in the case] simply don’t like that [the school board] has chosen this way to teach [anti-racism]. You don’t have standing to complain. The Albemarle County School Board doesn’t exist to create a curriculum that’s particular to any student. If we take that claim to its endpoint then we have to have a separate curriculum for each student, separate from others, because this student felt bad.”

“The school division needs to stop requiring students to confirm ideological views that they object to in the implementation of this policy,” said Wagner in summation.

“The ACSB policy, based on the court’s review, is not perfect, [but] the case as pled is insufficient to move forward,” said Worrell.

After the hearing, ADF released a statement that said they “looked forward to continuing to represent these parents and students on appeal.”

Mais v. ACSB

The second case, filed on April 13, is being brought by Emily Mais, a former assistant principal at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Albemarle County. Mais claims that she experienced severe and pervasive racial harassment at the hands of Agnor-Hurt staff during and after required anti-racism teacher training sessions at the school, which ultimately compelled her to resign from her job to preserve her mental health. 

The teacher training, currently in use at several county schools, is called Courageous Conversations about Race (CCAR), and was also the basis for the pilot program for students at Henley in the Ibañez case. According to the complaint, Mais, a 17-year teacher and administrator in Albemarle and elsewhere, attended the CCAR training at Agnor-Hurt beginning in March of 2021, and during the course of the program became disturbed by what she felt were racially discriminatory training materials.

According to the complaint filed with the court, “[t]he curriculum and materials stereotyped, demeaned, and dismissed white people as perpetuators of systemic racism. The materials were replete with pejorative stereotypes of how white people think, speak, and act, as well as stereotypical descriptions of ‘whiteness,’ ‘white culture,’ ‘white talk,’ and ‘white racial identity.’” Mais says that other attendees began complaining to her about the racially hostile environment created by the training, and she reported these concerns to the training leader, her school’s principal, Michael Irani, and other division officials, all of whom who did nothing.

The complaint states that at the final training session, during a discussion of the racial breakdown of the division’s employees and new hires, Mais suggested it would be useful to see the same statistics for the applicant pool to determine the causes of the disparity. Although she intended to use the phrase “people of color,” she inadvertently used the word “colored” instead. She immediately corrected herself and apologized for the slip, after which she was verbally attacked by a teacher’s aide, who called her an “old racist” and said she did not accept the apology.

“The school district then began to call Mais into all kinds of meetings, asking her to apologize over and over again, which she did while also raising her concerns about the hostile environment,” said Kate Anderson, lead counsel for ADF. Mais said she asked the Human Resource officials at the meetings to record the meetings but was denied. “The situation was allowed to grow even more hostile, both from the district level and at her school, where multiple staff members were allowed to continually harass and curse Ms. Mais at work, calling her vulgar names [“white racist bitch,” from the complaint] and standing outside her office to intimidate other employees who were her friends.”

Mais said that the climate became so bad that she was forced to resign in August to preserve her mental health. Court documents say that Bernard Hairston, Assistant Superintendent for School Community Empowerment, demanded that she apologize before the entire staff at Agnor-Hurt in a special meeting on the day before her last day of employment. She says she was told not to speak about her concerns about the training and her mistreatment in its aftermath, only that she was leaving to explore another career opportunity, which was not true. She was not allowed to make a statement in the apology meeting, only to briefly answer questions asked by Irani that compelled her to affirm the county’s anti-racism policy.

“This is an employment law case, because Ms. Mais was subjected to a ‘constructive discharge’ under the law,” said Anderson. “This happens when someone is put into an environment and they keep raising issues about it and not getting help from their superiors, so the person is effectively fired by the superiors not addressing the situation and by allowing the harassment to continue.” Mais filed a charge of discrimination with the Virginia Attorney General’s Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, both of which declined to pursue the charge.

Mais’ legal claims include violations of her freedom of speech under the Virginia Constitution as well as wrongful discharge, and the complaint requests a jury trial and relief in the form of back pay and compensatory and punitive damages. 

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