RIVERSIDE, Mo. – Park Hill School District (PHSD) is being accused of discrimination and violating students’ constitutional rights in a federal lawsuit after its handling of an innapropriate joke petition made by two Park Hill South students to bring slavery back.
The lawsuit is alleging the school district violated the students’ freedom of speech and unjustly portrayed the incident to the public in a way that put racism at the center of the situation. The lawsuit states racism had nothing to do with the petition as two minority students created it as a joke.
According to court documents, the Change.org petition entitled “Start slavery again,” was created in September by a black student and a black/Brazilian biracial student, identified as Student X and Plaintiff A, respectively.
The students, both 9th grade football players, engaged in “playful bantering about jobs and slaves” on the football bus before attaching a picture of Student X to the petition and posting it online. The petition was shown to several other football players who laughed and encouraged the two students to post it on social media, the lawsuit states.
According to court documents, three students jokingly commented controversial and racist statements on the petition and are identified as Plaintiffs B, C and D in the lawsuit. After a Nov. 3 hearing before the school board, Plaintiff A was expelled from Park Hill South and Plaintiffs B, C and D were slapped with 180-day suspensions.
The four plaintiffs are now suing Park Hill School District, its principal, members of the PHSD Board of Education, the superintendent and the district’s director of student services. The suit states the school district violated the students’ due process and equal protection rights, their freedom of speech and seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages.
The lawsuit also seeks the reinstatement of each student at Park Hill South and an expungement of records relating them to the incident.
According to the lawsuit, the petition was not to be taken literally as the two students who started it, Plaintiff A and Student X, are both minorities with black heritage.
“The ninth graders who posted, liked, or commented on the ‘petition,’ as well as the black, Student X, who participated in the creation and sharing of the ‘petition,’ all viewed it as a joke and those who commented on it wanted to be in on the joke,” the lawsuit states.
The co-creator of the petition, Student X, is not named as a plaintiff because the school district surprisingly didn’t discipline the student in any way, even though he offered his picture for the petition, signed the petition himself and shared it for others to sign.
All four students are being represented by renowned civil rights attorney Arthur Benson II, who won the landmark 1977 school desegregation case in Kansas City after he proved Missouri violated the civil rights of black children. It became one of the largest school desegregation orders in the country.
More than meets the eye
A rather significant part of the lawsuit details how Park Hill School District rushed to judgment and framed the incident as a maliciously motivated act of racism when it was actually just a distasteful joke made by a few teenagers.
“Defendants, while publicly and widely characterizing the ‘petition’ as ‘racist,’ did not inform the Park Hill School District Community or the public that the ‘petition’ had been created by a biracial black and Brazilian student with the encouragement of a black student or that the ‘petition’ and comments arose from a laughing and bantering group of multi-racial ninth graders for no purpose other than an attempt to be funny, making fun of racial stereotypes,” the lawsuit reads.
Included in the lawsuit is a timeline of events detailing a massive wave of news stories, social media posts etc. after a vague and misleading email was sent to all PHS families by Principal Dr. Kerrie Herren on the night of the incident.
“We found out today about some unacceptable and racist statements that some students posted online during a school-related activity,” Herren’s email read. “We are outraged, hurt and saddened this occurred in our community. This is not what we want to be at Park Hill South. Our differences make us stronger, and we will not tolerate discrimination or harrassment.”
Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd also followed up with the entire school district community in a Sept. 22 email referring to “unacceptable and racist statements” that had been posted online.
Nowhere in either email did the school administrators mention the race of the two students who created the petition, even though it was known at the time and certain students had already been given a 10-day temporary suspension.
After the pair of ambiguous emails, the overhauling mass of personal attacks, threats and spread of misinformation ran rampant through social media and targeted the 14-year-old kids. The vast majority of the comments and attacks assumed it was white students who started the petition and claimed the incident was indicative of a white supremacy culture at Park Hill South.
The timeline also mentions several news outlets including the KC Star, CNN, KMBC and others who framed the incident as an act of white supremacy, even though nobody involved in the creation of the petition was white.
The lawsuit states that the immediate and harsh disciplinary actions by PHSD were not imposed to maintain a functioning environment at the school district, but “for the personal or political needs of Defendants to appear publicly to impose harsh punishment on students who had purportedly circulated ‘racist statements.’”
It is worth noting that the Park Hill South football coaches, realizing the petition was nothing more than a cruel joke, insisted to the school administrators that it was a football team issue and that they would handle disciplining the students.
But, that seemingly wouldn’t allow the school administrators to push the “racist” narrative. So, they took it upon themselves to alert the public that a “racist” incident happened, when in reality, the players, coaches and creators of the petition themselves considered it a distasteful joke.
“Fourteen-year-olds sometimes unwisely shoot their mouths off, instantly regretting it but causing no harm, no disruption,” Attorney Arthur Benson said about the petition. “But here it was adults who unwisely over-reacted, causing the disruptions and they are now trying to strip these boys of their entire ninth grades.”
Why wasn’t Student X punished for helping create, signing and sharing the petition?
Student X was named numerous times by several students questioned as an instigator of the petition and was said to have often joked about racism against blacks in a lighthearted and inoffensive manner. Not only did he willingly offer his photo to attach to the petition, he signed it and texted it to other players encouraging them to sign, according to court documents.
Student X, who is black, is the only student who wasn’t punished that was involved in the incident. This surprised many students and parents as it is widely acknowledged that he was heavily involved in creating the petition. However, in his original statements to the school district, Student X reportedly denied any wrongdoing, even though there was contradictory video evidence that later came out showing his involvement.
Tom Hutsler is a parent of one of the students punished and has been one of the biggest objectors to how the school district handled the petition. Hutsler told The Heartlander that Student X’s mother is a substitute teacher at Park Hill School District and sounded off on social media the day the event happened.
Hutsler says Student X’s mother echoed the same talking points that every other parent, news outlet and individual spouted, assuming the students were white. She even claimed her son, Student X, was a victim of racism and that the organizer of the petition used his photo without his permission.
Many believe that Herren is refusing to punish Student X specifically because of his mother’s rant on social media and victimization of her son, who was actually a main proponent in creating the petition.
Park Hill administrators changed petition name to fit “white racist” narrative
It was interesting to find out Dr. Herren initially told the Park Hill School Board that all four students that he punished were white. Two of the students were white, but Plaintiff A is black/brazilian and Hutsler’s child is asian/white. Plaintiff A’s mother apparently marks ‘white’ down as her child’s ethnicity for school documentation each year because she feels it is “racist” for the school to ask.
Here’s the kicker: Dr. Herren instructed the vice principal to change the name on the petition to “White men start slavery again,” when filling out the students’ disciplinary notices.
When Herren pulled the transcripts of the kids he punished, he saw that three of them were listed as ‘white’ and one listed as asian/white. In an attempt to continue driving the “white racist” narrative, Herren instructed Vice Principal Melvin Walker to change the title of the petition from “Start slavery again” to “White men start slavery again,” according to Walker’s testimony to the Park Hill School Board.
Walker also altered the disciplinary notices to say that all four students created the petition equally. Whether Herren instructed Walker to do this is unknown, but it was definitively known at the time of writing the disciplinary notices that only Plaintiff A and Student X created the petition.
“The actual racist in the room is Dr. Herren,” Hutsler said about Herren’s dishonesty, targeting and discrimination of the students.
It is also worth noting that Dr. Herren was immensely outspoken and vocal about the incident when he believed that all students were white. Since it became known that the two students who started it were minorities and several other minorities signed the joke petition, he has yet to make any public addresses as he was so eager to do before.
Hutsler and the other parents involved were denied an appeal attempt after the initial punishments were given to the students. The parents then filed a restraining order against the school district, seeking to reinstate the students while the case makes its way through the court system. The preliminary hearing for the restraining order is set for Jan. 31.
The four families suing PHSD hope that this case will send a message to the school district that rushing to judgment only hurts everyone involved. The embarrassment that Herren has endured for his actions should certainly be enough for his behavior to change, though he has yet to admit to any wrongdoing.
“What we really want is to be able to move forward from this incident and to prevent this type of discrimination and targeting from happening to other students in the future,” Hutsler said. “No other family should have to suffer through this blatantly false branding of their child being racist when the evidence is to the contrary.”
The four families have set up a GoFundMe account to hopefully fundraise a portion of what is expected to be an exorbitant amount of legal fees totaling $150,000. Those interested in helping with the families’ legal costs can donate here.