In his Jan. 12 ruling siding with Springfield Public Schools, U.S. District Court Judge M. Douglas Harpool. wrote that two district employees did not show they were forced to align their views with equity trainers during a controversial 2020 training session. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

A lawsuit claiming Springfield Public Schools violated the First Amendment rights of two employees during 2020 diversity training sessions will be thrown out if a federal judge’s recent ruling stands.

Attorneys for the defendants — which included SPS and numerous administrators, as well as for the two plaintiffs — had each sought a summary judgment from U.S. District Court Judge M. Douglas Harpool.

In his Jan. 12  ruling siding with the defense request, Harpool wrote that the plaintiffs were unable to show that the district punished the two employees for exercising their right to free speech during the training, curtailed their ability to speak freely or produced any “injury-of-fact.” Even though the two employees “found the concepts presented during the training to be at odds with their personal views,” Harpool wrote, they were able to say so during the training without facing retribution. 

The lawsuit, filed in August of 2021, alleged the employees were forced to participate in mandatory equity training that compelled them to align with the district’s views on politicized issues like white privilege, anti-racism and equity. While critical race theory is not referenced by name in the lawsuit, Henderson and attorneys for Back on Track America, which represented the plaintiffs, have repeatedly alleged that CRT is baked into district training, according to earlier reporting by the Springfield News-Leader

Along with the school district, the remaining defendants linked to the lawsuit include current SPS Superintendent Grenita Lathan, Yvania Garcia-Pusateri, SPS chief equity and diversity officer, Lawrence “LA” Anderson, SPS coordinator of equity and diversity and the SPS Board of Education. 

In February, attorneys for the two employees, Brooke Henderson and Jennifer Lumley, filed a notice of appeal regarding the summary judgment issued by Harpool. The case remains open, and the plaintiffs must present a record of appeal for the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to consider by April 18. 

“The court’s ruling represents a significant, unequivocal legal victory for SPS, and we anticipate the appeal process will reach the same determination,” Stephen Hall, SPS spokesman, said in a statement to the Daily Citizen. “This has been a long, difficult, costly journey, but the outcome ultimately affirms the district. The ruling also acknowledges the district’s option to pursue attorney fees on behalf of taxpayers. Accordingly, SPS is earnestly seeking that reimbursement.”

Attorneys for Henderson and Lumley said in a statement to the Daily Citizen that the ruling should be reconsidered.

“As detailed in our pleadings, telling educators they must commit to anti-racism and become anti-racist — instruction that requires proactive political advocacy — rises to the level of unconstitutional compelled speech, as we outlined in our pleadings,” the statement from Back on Track America attorneys reads. “We look forward to our appeal.”

A March court filing from SPS attorneys tabulated the district’s legal fees at $312,869.50. Hall said that figure did not factor in expenses tied to several recent legal briefs or the expected costs of the appeals process. Hall said the district is currently anticipating that over $370,000 in legal fees will be sought from the plaintiffs. What amount the district will seek remains to be seen.

Dr. Grenita Lathan, who was not with SPS at the time of the diversity training, is one of several defendants listed in the lawsuit. (Photo by Jym Wilson)

Mandatory equity training at heart of legal battle

At issue is a set of virtual and in-person mandatory equity training sessions held in October 2020. SPS employees had to attend a session in order to receive professional development credit and additional compensation, Harpool wrote. 

Henderson participated in the online training and Lumley attended an in-person session. Both Henderson and Lumley remain employed with SPS. Henderson is a process coordinator in the Special Services department and Lumley is a secretary with the Analytics, Accountability and Assessment department.

According to documents, the plaintiffs and defense were at odds about what would have happened if Henderson and Lumley didn’t attend the training.  Harpool wrote that the plaintiffs claimed they would lose pay if absent from the training. The defense said pay associated with the training was supplemental, and that no employee who failed to attend the training was fired for not participating.

“Plaintiffs suffered no adverse employment action arising out of their participation in the training program,” Harpool wrote. “They were not fired, demoted, suspended, transferred, or disciplined. The district did not fail to promote them or change their duties or work assignments in retaliation, and there is no claim their participation in the training program, or any opinion they expressed during the training program, has in any way impacted the compensation or benefits of their employment with the district.”

Haprool added that the disagreements on this matter were immaterial because attorneys for Henderson and Lumley did not claim or produce evidence that showed their pay or credit was tied to expressing a specific viewpoint. 

“Such a request is wholly apart from compulsion or coercion, which necessarily involve some sort of incentive or disincentive to commit a specific act,” Harpool wrote.

Disagreements during training session regarding BLM protests, Kyle Rittenhouse among debates that proved employees free speech was not limited, judge writes

“Despite claims of compulsion, plaintiffs concede they expressed their personal views during the training,” Harpool wrote. 

For instance, Harpool wrote, Henderson said during the training that Black Lives Matter protests were “at least in part riotous and that Kyle Rittenhouse acted in self-defense when he shot and killed people during protests in Wisconsin.” The statements drew a rebuke from Garcia-Pusateri, the chief equity and diversity officer. Citing deposition records, Harpool wrote that Garcia-Pusateri told Henderson she was “confused and wrong.” Court filings from the plaintiffs expand on Harpool’s recounting, saying Henderson said: “she had heard he was defending himself from the rioters, and that she thought he had been hired to defend a business.”

Similarly, Harpool wrote, Lumley did not experience any retribution for saying she lacked white privilege “because she came from a poor, broken home,” among other statements. A session facilitator did tell her she “needed to work on herself.” 

But no other action was taken regarding the personal views shared, Harpool wrote. At most, he wrote that the opinions and responses to them constituted a “simple disagreement.” 

While there were disagreements during the sessions, Harpool wrote, the plaintiffs did not show they were compelled to align their views with the session leaders. 

“Rather, facts not in dispute generally show the exact opposite: Plaintiffs voiced their personal objections to anti-racism and equity,” Harpool wrote. “Plaintiff’s expression of their views makes clear they neither affirm, endorse, promote, nor adopt equity and anti-racism. Plaintiffs themselves acknowledge this when they argue that Plaintiff Lumley’s own coworkers berated her during training for opposing equity and anti-racism. Simple logic dictates that Plaintiff Lumley’s coworkers cannot both berate her for opposing equity and antiracism and simultaneously associate her with those concepts.” 

Harpool wrote that the district neither compelled the two employees to align with a viewpoint nor chilled them from asserting their own. 

“Plaintiffs argue if they voiced their personal views on equity and anti-racism, they risked being labeled white supremacists and losing professional development and pay,” Harpool wrote. “As a basis for this concern, Plaintiffs argue, ‘SPS taught that white supremacy is not just a label for the KKK — it includes anyone who believes in colorblindness or says that all lives matter.’ Plaintiffs also argue, ‘SPS warned staff that denying one’s white privilege is in itself white supremacy.’”

However, Harpool wrote, there was no evidence present to show that the defendants called the plaintiffs or any other employees white supremacists. 

Plaintiffs responses to training exercises were examples of self-censorship, judge says, not district coercion 

To get credit for participation in the training, employees were required to complete a certain number of exercises presented during the sessions. 

Among them was a “four corners” exercise, in which participants would answer whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with prompts like, “I believe my identities and lived experiences are affirmed and supported by the District.” There was also a set of multiple-choice questions in the online training tied to a set of video clips about equity and anti-racism. The plaintiffs alleged they were forced to answer these exercises the way the district wanted them to. Harpool wrote that the evidence showed otherwise. 

He wrote that Henderson opted to answer “agree” to every question asked during the four corners exercise, whether she actually agreed with the statement or not. 

“Though it may have been more popular and easier to agree with some prompts, this does not indicate defendants actually encouraged Plaintiff Henderson to forego expressing her actual beliefs,” Harpool wrote. 

In court filings and in the statement to the Daily Citizen, attorneys for Henderson and Lumley challenged the assertion that their clients’ beliefs were not infringed upon.

“The concept of ‘equity’ as taught by Springfield Public Schools endorses the idea that colorblindness and equality are white supremacy,” attorneys for Henderson and Lumley wrote to the Daily Citizen. “Our Constitution and laws demand the complete opposite. At the least, if the district is going to introduce these concepts it cannot expect their employees commit to them or tell them they are wrong when they disagree.”

In court filings, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that Henderson was compelled to answer multiple choice questions a specific way. Harpool wrote that the questions had only two possible answers, and that a “correct” or an “incorrect” answer provided the quiz-taker with similar messages. 

A question asking how one should respond if they witness racism and xenophobia in the classroom, for example, had two options — “address the situation in private after it passed” or “address the situation in the moment you realize it is happening.” 

Those who answered “in private” received this response: “Incorrect! It is imperative adults speak up immediately and address the situation with those involved. Being anti-racist requires immediate action.”

Those who picked the second option received this response: “Correct! Being an anti-racist requires immediate action.” 

Henderson picked the correct option, Harpool wrote, but “generally agreed with the first option.” 

“Plaintiff Henderson’s selection of the credited response suggests no personal affirmation of or affiliation with that response,” Harpool wrote. “Rather, choosing the credited response at most reflects an ability to grasp the material presented during the video.” 

Judge remarks on controversial nature of the lawsuit at hand

The initial complaint alleged that the district’s training was using terms like “equity” and “culturally responsive teaching” as “code-speak” to conceal the practice of conditioning individuals to see each other’s skin color first and foremost, then pitting different racial groups against each other.”

Harpool, in his summary judgment siding with the defendants, said the professional training related to “important but inherently controversial issues” that face all public entities, and public school districts in particular. 

“Issues of race discrimination, inequality, and prejudice have confounded policymakers throughout our country’s history. It started with the framers of the Constitution, continued with debates about whether to admit states as slave states or free states, led to a bloody Civil War, and persisted through Jim Crow laws, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, racially-motivated lynchings and massacres, controversy over the separate but equal doctrine, race riots, enactment of the  Civil Rights Acts, and claims of inverse discrimination. None of these developments have put the controversy to rest. 

“Here, Defendant SPS’ professional training endeavored to address, increase, and enhance employees’ understanding and sensitivity to race issues likely to be confronted by minority students served by Defendant SPS. The training, however, did not require by means of compulsion or coercion Plaintiffs or anyone else to express a specific message after encountering examples of discrimination or xenophobia. This Court has found nothing in the professional training, or policy suggested by the training, requiring an employee to violate the Constitution or federal law.” 

Harpool went on to say that Henderson and Lumley contended they should not have to “listen to, learn, or follow Defendants’ description of equity and anti-racism discussed during the training because they personally disagree.” The problem with that, Harpool wrote, is that a government entity like a school district would be unlikely to be able to find an approach that appeased all of its employees when addressing controversial subjects. 

“The claim that the district should not conduct training for them to attend on policies applicable at work involving their employment because they disagree with them, however, is untenable,” Harpool wrote. “Such a ruling would make administration of a governmental unit such as a large, urban school district wholly unworkable. It would distort the employer-employee relationship. It is a frivolous claim and theory.”

Matter of who pays district’s $300K+ legal fees to be decided after plaintiff’s request for appeal is resolved

The plaintiffs had sought a ruling declaring that the 2020 equity training violated their First Amendment rights, an award of $1 for each day they attended the mandatory training and “other legal or equitable relief the Court deems just and appropriate.” But hundreds of thousands of dollars could change depending on a ruling regarding SPS legal fees. 

In a March filing, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that the defense has not proved that the claims made in the lawsuit were frivolous and that they should either not be required to pay attorneys fees or, at most, should be required to pay a reduced total.

Attorneys for SPS requested that Harpool delay a ruling on attorneys fees until after the appeal has been resolved. A ruling has not been issued on that matter, but Harpool offered a message in his summary judgment addressing the fees. 

“The court is mindful Defendants have incurred substantial legal fees in defending the claim,” he wrote. “Taxpayer dollars which could have been devoted to enhancing the educational opportunity of the students served by the district have instead been diverted to the defense of this lawsuit. The students of the district deserve better. So too do taxpayers whose hard-earned money is taxed by the district for the purpose of educating the children of the district in which they reside.”

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson