District employee files lawsuit against four board members, district itself
The Newberg School District and the four conservative members of its board of directors are the brunt of another lawsuit decrying the body's decision last summer to ban political signs in schools. This lawsuit, however, comes from someone within the district: an employee at an elementary school.
The lawsuit targets the school district itself, chairman Dave Brown, vice-chairman Brian Shannon and directors Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell.
Special ed assistant Chelsea Shotts, with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union and a powerful Portland law firm, filed the lawsuit last week challenging the board's policy restricting "political, quasi-political or controversial" displays, including Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ flags.
The lawsuit came about after retired attorney Mike Gunn filed a complaint in late September with Dundee Elementary School Principal Reed Langdon and Brown after spotting a sign in the window of Shotts' classroom that displayed a rainbow-patterned heart and the words "Be Known," a slogan used in George Fox University ad campaigns. The sign, erected prior to the board adopting its new policy in August, holds that Gunn's complaint was to first be addressed to Shotts herself, then by Langdon, then forwarded to the school superintendent and the board if the complainant was unsatisfied with the principal's decision.
Brown replied to Gunn's complaint in an email: "The decision to remove all flags and banners in our schools is to remove all political signs and banners. The United States flag and the Oregon state flag are the only flags to be used in our schools. Removing the Pride flag and banners in no way means we are not committed to any and all students who identify as LBGQT+ in any way."
Brown further commented at the board's Oct. 26 meeting that enforcing the policy was proving difficult.
"Some of our staff members have shown very clearly where they stand on this issue," he said. "The defiance is through the roof and it's … troubling to a lot of people in our community."
In October, Langdon emailed Gunn that he would not order the sign be removed, arguing that it is not political, but "one that honors students and tells them they are welcome at Dundee Elementary."
Langdon's determination prompted Gunn to forward his complaint to the superintendent. Morelock ruled that the sign "is not a political, quasi-political or controversial sign and should not be removed," causing Gunn's complaint to be forwarded to school board for a determination.
The board addressed Gunn's complaint at its Nov. 9 meeting, but tabled it indefinitely after struggling with the language in its own policy.
"This is like the grayest of gray areas for me, because is any rainbow pattern automatically a Pride flag?" Brian Shannon, the director who authored the policy and headed the drive to eliminate political signs from schools, said. "I don't think it is. My daughter wears rainbow pajamas all the time. So, this is a tough one, I'm not going to lie."
He added, however, that he believed the sign appeared to intentionally skirt the particulars of the policy.
"So, here's the thing, I think that (the sign) is a work-around to get around the policy and I don't like that," he said. "At the same time, I'm afraid that by interpreting the policy too rigidly â€“ to broadly is the correct word â€“ we would be endangering the policy itself in court."
Director Trevor DeHart countered that it was apparent Shotts' display was politically motivated.
"There (are) many types of different ducks in the world and they've got different coloring, different shapes, but in the end they're all ducks. If we take a Pride flag or a BLM flag or a MAGA flag and put a heart on it, does it change the essence of what it is?"
Prior to the meeting that evening the board engaged in an hours-long executive session to discuss Morelock's future as superintendent. Then, in open session and without explanation, the four conservative members of the board voted to terminate Morelock's contract without cause.
Board members and some in the local citizenry have complained that Morelock wasn't enforcing the ban on political signs instituted by the board and that that lead to his termination.
Morelock told an OPB reporter soon after his termination that some people probably felt "frustrated" that the policy wasn't being enforced quickly enough. He had made it clear to the board in early September that he would not implement the policy as the district's legal counsel said it appeared illegal and would subject the district to additional legal action.
The lawsuit, filed by the ACLU in conjunction with the Portland law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, claims that Shotts' sign is protected by the Oregon Constitution.
"In the lawsuit, we ask the court to enjoin enforcement of the policy and find that the policy violates Ms. Shotts' rights under Article I, sections 8 and 20 of the Oregon Constitution," the ACLU said in a press release. "These provisions protect free expression, require equal treatment under the law, and ensure laws are not vague. Ms. Shotts is not asking for financial compensation."
Shotts, who identifies as bisexual, explained her reasoning for erecting the sign:
"As a queer staff member, I deserve to be safe from discrimination and hate, but even more important to me, queer students deserve to be safe and supported. I will do everything in my power to create an environment that makes all students feel safe and supported so they can learn and thrive. I wish the entire board would join us in these efforts."
The lawsuit claims the board policy violates the state constitution's provisions to protect free expression, requires equal treatment under the law and ensure that laws are not vague.
"Throughout American history, people in power have defended white supremacy and other discriminatory systems under the guise of neutrality," said ACLU of Oregon Legal Director Kelly Simon. "The tactics of the four-member majority of the Newberg School District are eerily similar to those used to resist racial integration in public schools.
"We believe the policy is a poorly veiled attempt to prohibit messages of support for Black and LGBTQ+ students and make their identities political. That is not neutral. Every young person deserves a free, safe and inclusive education …"
The lawsuit, filed Dec. 17 in Yamhill County Circuit Court, requests a jury trial. The court has yet to schedule a hearing on the matter.
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