Lawsuit claims Springfield Public Schools violated employee’s First Amendment rights during professional development on equity

(The Center Square) – Two employees of the Springfield Public Schools filed a federal lawsuit contending their First Amendment rights were violated during a professional development session on equity and racism.

Brooke Henderson, a compliance coordinator who ensures students with disabilities receive benefits and services, and Jennifer Lumley, a records secretary for the district, contend the mandatory district-wide staff training demanded they “commit” to equity and become “anti-racist educators.” Their attorney, Kimberly Hermann with the nonprofit Southeastern Legal Foundation, filed a 29-page complaint in the Southern Division of the U.S. District Court in Western Missouri.

“Public schools are an arm of the government,” the complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief states. “The First Amendment makes clear that the government cannot discriminate based on viewpoint, cause individuals to self-censor, or force individuals to accept beliefs with which they do not agree.”

The document says the terms “equity… social justice, diversity and inclusion… culturally responsive teaching” are “actually code-speak for a much bigger and more dangerous picture: the practice of conditioning individuals to see each other’s skin color first and foremost, then pitting different racial groups against each other.”

The lawsuit states “equity is very different from equality. Equity is about so-called fairness. Equality is the principle proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, defended in the Civil War, and codified into law with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Equality strives for equal opportunity and colorblind treatment under the law, while equity in practice is an official license to punish individuals based on skin color.”

“The legal action filed by Ms. Henderson and Ms. Lumley is a serious distraction that consumes time and resources better focused on children,” Stephen Hall, chief communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, said in a statement.

The case is before Magistrate Judge Jill A. Morris with no date for a hearing. The complaint contains several examples of graphics used during the training, obtained through a freedom of information act request, according to Hermann.

“The First Amendment violation is that the district is requiring as a condition of employment that its educators commit to equity, to become anti-racist educators, and affirm the divisive and discriminatory programming,” Hermann said. “The teachers and the educators are told to take and implement it in the classroom, which then would violate their student’s equal protection rights and civil rights. So in terms of where the First Amendment violation lies, it lies in the district compelling speech and discriminating against these educator’s viewpoints.”

Hall said the lawsuit attacks the district’s efforts to educate and inform students.

“This effort is part of a misinformation campaign designed to undermine our district’s pursuit of equity for all,” Hall said. “Springfield Public Schools is prepared to vigorously defend our efforts to honor and respect the identities and lived experiences of all students and staff. We are confident that the court will ultimately determine the lawsuit is frivolous and without merit.”

Henderson and Lumley are requesting the court declare:

  • the professional development violated their First Amendment rights;
  • the professional development is an unconstitutional condition of employment;
  • an order to end unconstitutional conduct and prevent similar occurrences in the future;
  • jurisdiction to assure full compliance with the court orders;
  • an award of $1 per each day of mandatory equity training;
  • an award attorney’s fees;
  • grant other and further relief as the court deems appropriate.

“One thing I would point out is to follow the money,” Hermann said. “Springfield Public Schools, from what I understand, is spending a tremendous amount of money on teaching its educators to teach the students that they should look, first and foremost, at the color of your skin instead of teaching them how to read, write and do arithmetic. The district has said this case is a distraction and our response to that is that the Constitution and our kid’s rights are never distraction.”

A screenshot from a 29-page complaint filed in the lawsuit of Henderson v. Springfield Public Schools shows a graphic used during a professional development training and obtained through a freedom of information act request.

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