RIVERSIDE, Mo. — Four students who were disciplined after a “petition” seeking to restart slavery was posted on social media are suing their Kansas City school district for civil rights violations.
The students from Park Hill South High School said the posting in September began as part of bantering between a biracial student and a Black student, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday.
After other students laughed at the petition, it was posted on social media, drawing national media coverage.
The biracial student was expelled and three other students who commented on the petition were suspended for 180 days. All the students are ninth graders and members of the school’s football team, KCUR reported.
The students are suing the school district, its principal, the members of the Park Hill School District Board of Education, the district’s superintendent, and the district’s director of student services.
The lawsuit claims the officials violated the students’ First Amendment, due process and equal protection rights. They are seeking to be reinstated and to have the incident removed from their school records, along with unspecified actual and punitive damages.
“Fourteen-year-olds sometimes unwisely shoot their mouths off, instantly regretting it but causing no harm, no disruption,” said Arthur Benson II, who is representing the students. “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.”
Nicole Kirby, a spokeswoman for the Park Hill School District, said the district acted appropriately when it took “prompt, decisive action to enforce our policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and uncivil behavior.”
Kirby said the district would share more details when it responds to the lawsuit in court.
The lawsuit said the district’s efforts to improve equity and equal treatment as its Black and Hispanic population grew in recent years made it difficult for ninth graders to “navigate their conduct between the pulls of a peer culture that valued racialized bantering and the adult expectations of a school code that prohibited most forms of racial or ethnic descriptions and banter as punishable offenses.”
The lawsuit said uproar began when the football team was on a bus en route to a game on Sept. 16.
One of the students, who is Black and Brazilian, was joking with the Black student and typed a “petition” on the website Change.org that said “Start slavery again,” according to the lawsuit.
Other students encouraged the student to post it on social media. When the team returned after the game, 11 people had “liked” the petition and others had shared it.
Two of the other three students who commented on the petition were white and the other is white and Asian, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims the petition caused no disruption at the school and was not intended to be taken literally.
After a parent complained about the posting the next day, the students were interviewed and admitted they participated in the petition but thought it was a joke.
The principal, Kerrie Herren, then sent an email to families of the school’s students telling them he had just learned of “some unacceptable and racist statements that some students posted online.”
News outlets, including The Associated Press, reported on the issue, prompting Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd to notify the entire school district community about the “unacceptable and racist statements,” which prompted more news stories.
After a hearing before the school board, the biracial student was expelled and the other three students were suspended. The Black student was not punished.