Several school districts in Michigan have been sued by parents in recent years, over topics as varied as COVID-19 closures, masking, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
Some parents and others say they have raised concerns at school board meetings, only to face retaliation from school officials.
“Throughout the pandemic, parents have fought against policies that hurt their children’s ability to learn,” says Steve Delie, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “In response, they have faced untold retaliation from school boards, ranging from attempts to have them fired, to lawsuits and criminal investigations.”
“Parents should be free to plead without fear that it will cost them their livelihood or their freedom.”
Sandra Hernden is the mother of a student with special needs at Chippewa Valley Schools. She spoke out at school board meetings once she saw her son struggling emotionally and academically after authorities shut down classroom learning. Hernden also wrote emails to school board secretary Elizabeth Pyden.
After several email exchanges between the two, Pyden contacted Hernden’s supervisor at a police department, suggesting that she was engaging in conduct unbecoming a law enforcement officer.
The department investigated, but found that Hernden did not violate work policy.
Pyden wasn’t the only district official to report Hernden to someone else. School board president Frank Bednard forwarded some of the emails between Pyden and Hernden to the US Department of Justice. Bednard did so shortly after the National School Board Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden, asking the Justice Department to investigate some parents at school board meetings.
The association said some parents who have expressed opposition to school closures, mask mandates and other policies have engaged in “malicious acts, violence and threats against public school officials. which could be qualified as a “form of domestic terrorism”.
The DOJ announced that the FBI would investigate these cases.
Hernden is suing the school district, seeking an excuse for retaliatory behavior and a school commitment to honoring the First Amendment. Hernden, who is represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, is not seeking damages.
The closure of in-person learning has had academic costs, with students losing 13 weeks of math instruction during the closure. EduLab, a research center at Georgetown University, has developed a calculator to estimate the financial impact of lost teaching time, as measured by the cost of hiring tutors to help students recover. In the case of the Chippewa Valley schools, that’s $16 million for math instruction and $7 million for tutoring to recover from nine lost weeks of reading instruction. The district received $10.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.
Erin Chaskey, mother of an Onaway Area Community School District student, is suing the school district and county sheriff, alleging defamation, false arrest, malicious prosecution and civil rights violations. The district sought criminal charges against Chaskey after she recorded a conversation between two school officials who were talking about her. She was charged under a rarely used law against eavesdropping, which is a felony.
Chaskey could have faced up to two years in prison if convicted, but the judge dismissed the case. “This vindictive lawsuit was an unwarranted and retaliatory effort to silence Erin,” said Daren Wiseley, Chaskey’s attorney, according to the Detroit Free Press. She had approached school officials with concerns about a teacher who she says told a student ‘your white privilege is showing up’ and wanted to use books in the classroom that some parents believe are political in nature .
Onaway students lost eight weeks of in-class math learning, at an estimated cost of $322,358. They lost six weeks of reading, with an estimated cost of $173,809. Onaway schools received $1.5 million in federal relief funds.
Rochester Community Schools was sued by Elena Dinverno after she lost her job. Debra Fragomeni, the district’s assistant superintendent, called Dinverno’s employer to report her social media posts, in which she questioned the school board’s decisions about in-person instruction during the pandemic. The district admitted to monitoring social media and collecting messages about the district.
The district paid Dinverno $116,209 and covered $72,240 of his legal fees to settle the lawsuit, according to Fox News Detroit.
Students in the Rochester District lost eight weeks of math learning due to the closure and two weeks of reading learning. EduLab calculated the loss at $9.2 million for lost math lessons and $1.2 million for lost reading lessons. The district received $2.3 million in federal relief funds.
Grand Ledge Public Schools has attracted national media attention over the past two years due to several lawsuits filed against them. Sara Clark Pierson, former chair of the Grand Ledge school board, told local media that at a town hall meeting, some parents rushed to the stage with their fists raised. Pierson called the event a “mini-January 6 insurrection”.
Video of the meeting did not support Pierson’s claims. Ben Cwayna, another school board member, told the Michigan Capitol Confidential that the story Pierson told the media never happened. Even so, Grand Ledge parents were mentioned by the National School Board Assocation when it asked the US government to investigate the behavior of parents at school board meetings.
Renee Hultburg filed a lawsuit in March against the district, alleging it failed to comply with the state’s open records law when responding to her requests. She had asked how many requests she had received for a waiver of a masking mandate, according to the Lansing State Journal. The district did not provide him with the information.
Amber Redman, a parent and former district resident, sued the school board for what she says was a violation of the open meeting law. The council asked parents who wanted to speak at its meetings to fill out a card, and the card required too much information from parents, including their address, she said, according to Fox 47 News. A judge dismissed the lawsuit in November.
Parents aren’t the only ones who have sued school districts for inappropriate behavior.
Grand Ledge Public Schools has fired its superintendent, Brian Metcalf, for comments he made in his personal social media accounts about the May 2020 killing of George Floyd. Metcalf has filed a lawsuit, alleging that the school board had not granted him due process.
Metcalf received a contract payment of $802,872 and $75,000 in compensatory damages. The school district is also required to pay his attorney’s fees.
Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Young Jr. said in his arbitration decision that the board failed to follow due process when he fired Metcalf.
Grand Ledge students lost 12 weeks of math instruction, with an estimated impact of $4.6 million. Students also lost eight weeks in reading, at an estimated cost of nearly $2 million. The district received $2.5 million in COVID relief funds.