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Parents, students file federal lawsuit over Forest Hills School District ban on anti-racism teachings

a sign reading "protect diversity in FHSD" in a flower bed
Cory Sharber
Sign seen outside a building when students at Turpin High School walked out of class on May 18 to protest Diversity Day being canceled.

Updated June 29

Parents and students in the Forest Hills School District have filed a lawsuit in federal court over the ongoing fight about what teachers are and aren't allowed to teach.

The 40-page document was filed Wednesday with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of seven parents — one of whom is also a teacher in the district — and six children. It names the district's Board of Education and its five members, along with the district and the presumptive incoming superintendent as defendants.

The suit challenges a recently passed resolution banning assignments where students would have to consider their race, socioeconomic class, religion, gender identity or sexuality.

It calls the resolution an "illegal and unconstitutional race-based and content-based restriction which violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution," adding, "The Resolution's vague, overbroad, race-based and viewpoint discriminatory provisions impermissibly invade upon, among other things, students’ First Amendment Right to receive information and free speech, educators’ First Amendment Right of free speech and academic freedom, and the Equal Protection Clause."

The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare the resolution unconstitutional and stop it from being enforced.

WVXU reached out to the district for comment. It says in a statement, "Forest Hills School District and the Board of Education have received the complaint and are reviewing it with legal counsel. FHSD has no further comment at this time."

On Monday, WVXU reported:

Three of five school board members last week passed a resolution banning assignments where students would have to consider their race, socioeconomic class, religion, gender identity or sexuality. According to our news partner WCPO, it also says schools can't force students to admit privilege or oppression.

A letter sent to the board from Lundrigan Law Group suggests the language in the resolution was rushed and should be rescinded immediately to avoid legal action.

"We want to very clearly state to you that the resolution violates numerous established legal and Constitutional rights, and will subject the Board and this school district to lawsuits and potential legal liability. The resolution must be rescinded immediately," it states.

Parents and students are also circulating a petition on calling for the so-called "Culture of Kindness" resolution to be repealed.

It states, among several points, "This resolution will harm the students in our community by censoring curriculum and putting student educational experiences at odds with standards set by the AP College Board or the Ohio Department of Education."

The resolution came less than a month after the board canceled Turpin High School's Diversity Day. Students participated in a walkout and held a scaled-down event at a local church.

The following day, a senior appeared in front of a Congressional subcommittee to discuss their experiences.

Claire Mengel addressed the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in Washington, D.C., May 19.

"Seven students have committed suicide since I've started middle school," Mengel said. "While administrators are doing everything they can just to keep us alive, the anti-CRT rhetoric by the school board is causing immeasurable stress on our students and staff. I and other students spent many hours planning this replacement event instead of studying exams and cherishing our last weeks of high school."

Earlier in May, the school board voted 4-0 to put Diversity Day — what had been an annual event for several years — on hold, stating it would no longer happen during school hours, use school resources or be paid for by taxpayers. Then, the school district announced its cancellation.

Multiple school board members campaigned on an anti-critical race theory platform, even holding protests last year. Mengel says the board used critical race theory — a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism — as a scapegoat to cancel open discussion on diversity and that Forest Hills is in the middle of a mental health crisis.

Meanwhile, the board Monday announced it's selected Larry Hook to serve as the next superintendent. Negotiations are underway.

He's currently superintendent of Springboro Schools and was in the running to be the head of the State Board of Education.

He would succeed Scot Prebles, who announced his resignation in April to take the superintendent position at a school district in the the Cleveland area.

Updated: June 29, 2022 at 3:18 PM EDT
This story has been updated to state a federal lawsuit was filed June 29, 2022.
Updated: June 27, 2022 at 4:33 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include information about the board's selection of Larry Hook to be the district's next superintendent.
Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.