KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The parents of four Park Hill South High School freshmen have filed a lawsuit against the Park Hill School District for how it handled the discipline of the students for their petition to “start slavery again.”
In September, the district took action against a handful of students for their role in creating and circulating a petition that included racist statements.
The petition generated response from school and district officials, including principal Kerrie Herren, who, in a letter to parents, described the petition as including “racist statements” that are “not tolerated and will never be tolerated in our building.”
Herren’s letter indicated the students involved had been “punished.”
At the time, the district said it wasn’t able to disclose the punishments made against the students, but in a federal lawsuit filed last week, the parents outline the punishments, including one student who was expelled and three others who received 180 days suspension.
According to the lawsuit, a Park Hill South freshman who identifies as Black and Brazilian and is referenced in the lawsuit as Plaintiff A, was on a school bus traveling to a football game and allegedly “bantered” with another student, who the lawsuit identifies as Black and is referenced in court documents Student X, about slavery and needing a job. The lawsuit alleges Plaintiff A drafted a change.org petition, showed it to other students on the bus and then posted it.
The lawsuit says the students then allegedly shared the petition in a SnapChat Group used by the football team, where other students, including three other students identified in the lawsuit as Plaintiffs B, C and D, commented on the petition.
The lawsuit says the student who published the petition was expelled from school, and the three other students who commented on the petition received 180-day suspensions.
Arthur Benson, the attorney representing the four students, wrote in the civil suit that the district had long struggled with race relations and it was that history that pressured the district to hand out the punishments.
“The expulsion and long-term suspensions imposed on Plaintiffs were imposed for purposes unrelated to the need of Defendants to maintain good order and a functioning educational environment in Park Hill schools, but were instead imposed for the personal or political needs of Defendants to appear publicly to impose harsh punishment on students who had purportedly circulated “racist statements,” Benson wrote in the suit.
A district spokesperson confirmed the punishments outlined in the lawsuit, but said further comment from the district would be made as part of the ongoing lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the students’ first amendment rights and due process rights were violated by the district, as was their right to equal protection, as Student X, the student that allegedly encouraged Plaintiff A to post the petition, was not punished. Additionaly, the suit alleges the district failed to offer proper training and supervision that led to the alleged violation of the students’ rights.
The suit asks the court to allow the four freshmen to return to school, expunge their school records relating to the incident, and award damages and attorneys’ fees.
In the aftermath of the incident, Park Hill Superintendent Dr. Jeanette Cowherd said the district would start a process of hiring an expert on racism.
During a school board meeting on Oct. 14, the district provided an update on its efforts, though some parents at the meeting expressed frustration the district wasn't doing enough.
Though that work continues, it won’t be under Cowherd’s leadership. Barely a month after the original incident in September, Cowherd informed the school board she planned to step down at the end of the school year.