News Story

Michigan school districts face lawsuits alleging retaliation, lack of due process

Parents who speak up may find themselves reported to their employers, law enforcement

Several Michigan school districts have been sued by parents in recent years, on topics as varied as COVID-19 shutdowns, masking, and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.

Some parents and others say they have voiced concerns at school board meetings, only to be met with retaliation by school officials.

“Throughout the pandemic, parents 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 faced untold retaliation by school boards, ranging from attempts to have them fired, to lawsuits and criminal investigations.”

“Parents should be free to advocate without the fear that it will cost them their livelihoods or their freedom.”

Sandra Hernden is the mother of a Chippewa Valley Schools special needs student. She spoke up at school board meetings once she saw her son struggle emotionally and academically after officials shut down classroom learning. Hernden also wrote emails to the school board secretary, Elizabeth Pyden.

After several email exchanges between the two, Pyden contacted Hernden’s supervisor at a police department, suggesting she was engaging in conduct unbecoming of a law enforcement officer.

The department performed an investigation, but it found that Hernden did not violate work policy.

Pyden was not the only district official to report Hernden to someone else. Frank Bednard, president of the school board, forwarded some of the emails between Pyden and Hernden to the U.S. Department of Justice. Bednard did this shortly after the National School Board Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden, asking for the Department of Justice to investigate certain parents at school board meetings.

The association said that some parents who voiced their opposition to school closings, mask mandates and other policies were engaged in “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials” that could be classified as a “form of domestic terrorism.”

The DOJ announced that the FBI will investigate those cases.

Hernden is suing the school district, seeking an apology for retaliatory behavior and a commitment from the school to honor the First Amendment. Hernden, who is represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, is not asking for monetary damages.

Closing down 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 instructional time, as measured by the cost of hiring tutors to help students recover. In the case of Chippewa Valley schools, that comes to $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, a mother of a student in the Onaway Area Community School District, is suing the school district and the county sheriff, alleging defamation, false arrest, malicious prosecution and civil rights violations. The district sought a criminal prosecution of 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 prosecution was a wrongful 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” and wanted to use books in the classroom that some parents feel are political in nature.

Onaway students lost eight weeks of classroom learning in math, with an esimated 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, a deputy superintendent of the district, called Dinverno’s employer to report her social media posts, in which she had questioned the school board’s decisions about in-person instruction during the pandemic. The district admitted to monitoring social media and collecting posts discussing the district.

The district paid $116,209 to Dinverno and covered $72,240 of her legal fees to settle the lawsuit, according to Fox News Detroit.

Students in the Rochester district lost eight weeks of learning in math due to the shutdown and two weeks of learning in reading. EduLab calculated the loss at $9.2 million for lost math instruction and $1.2 million for lost reading instruction. The district received $2.3 million in federal relief funds.

Grand Ledge Public Schools has been the site of national media attention over the last two years due to several lawsuits filed against it. Sara Clark Pierson, a former Grand Ledge school board president, told local media that during a public meeting, some parents rushed the stage with raised fists. Pierson called the event a “mini January 6 insurrection.”

Video from the meeting did not support Pierson’s claims. Ben Cwayna, another school board member, told Michigan Capitol Confidential that the story Pierson told to the media never happened. Even so, parents in Grand Ledge were mentioned by the National School Board Assocation when it called on the U.S. government to investigate parents’ behavior at school board meetings.

Renee Hultburg filed a lawsuit in March against the district, alleging that it failed to comply with the state’s open records law when it responded to her requests. She had asked for the number of requests it had received for an exemption from a masking mandate, according to the Lansing State Journal. The district did not provide her with the information.

Amber Redman, a parent and former district resident, sued the school board over what she says is a violation of the Open Meetings Act. The board required parents who wished 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 are not the only ones who have filed lawsuits against school districts for improper behavior.

Grand Ledge Public Schools fired its superintendent, Brian Metcalf, over comments he made in his personal social media accounts about the May 2020 murder of George Floyd. Metcalf filed a lawsuit, alleging that the school board did not give him due process.

Metcalf was awarded an $802,872 contract payout and $75,000 in compensatory damages. The school district also is required to pay his attorney fees.

Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Young Jr. said in his arbitration ruling that the board did not follow due process when it 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.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.