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Lee’s Summit refuses to back down on COVID orders after Missouri Attorney General threatens lawsuits

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, in St. Louis.
Jeff Roberson
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, in St. Louis.

A lawyer for the Lee's Summit School District said the attorney general's recent letters ordering dozens of school districts to drop their mask mandates and quarantine orders “not only lack legal effect — they are simply wrong.”

Updated: December 13, 2021 at 6:35 PM CST
This story has been updated to include Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt's response to Joe Hatley's letter.

In a blistering letter to Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a lawyer for the Lee’s Summit School District says Schmitt has no legal authority to order districts to halt their COVID-19 mitigation protocols.

Schmitt sent letters last week to dozens of school districts across the state threatening legal action if they did not cease and desist from enforcing mask requirements and quarantine policies.

Schmitt said such health orders violate a ruling by a Cole County judge last month that barred local health departments from issuing public health orders.

Joe Hatley, an attorney for the Lee’s Summit School District, wrote to Schmitt that his recent letters “not only lack legal effect — they are simply wrong.”

Hatley said every COVID mitigation effort issued by the district was driven by its commitment to keep students and staff safe and in the classroom.

“The Board is equally committed to standing up for its teachers, principals, and support staff against baseless attacks on the Board’s legal authority to act in accordance with Missouri law in protecting them against a disease that has killed over 15,000 Missourians,” Hatley wrote.

Hatley continued: "While the District acknowledges that people have certain rights, it teaches its students the fundamental notion that rights must be balanced against the obligation to exercise them responsibly, and in a manner that does not violate the rights of others. Your invocation of 'rights' untethered to an obligation to exercise them responsibly invites lawlessness. This is especially pernicious coming from your office, because of the outsized weight some may attach to your opinions. But as Missouri’s courts have repeatedly said, the opinions of the Attorney General have no binding authority."

Hatley said that the Cole County judge’s ruling is not binding on school districts or other courts in the state.

Hatley also said that school districts’ authority to issue COVID protocols does not depend on the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services or on local health departments. He cited four Missouri statutes giving boards of education the authority to make rules and regulations for their districts.

He also cited a 1963 law that allows school officials to exclude students who have or are liable to transmit a contagious disease.

“So even if the Robinson decision were to be correct — something begging for an appellate court to determine — it is irrelevant,” Hatley said, referring to the Cole County court ruling. “The Missouri Legislature has expressly granted local boards of education wide-ranging power to manage and govern their own affairs, power that you have no authority to interfere with.”

In a reply to Hatley’s letter Monday evening, Schmitt argued otherwise, saying that the district “has an obligation to follow the law — not flout it an arbitrary and illegal matter.”

Schmitt said that the general statutes describing the powers of school boards only give them limited authority to exclude children at risk of spreading disease. He argued that giving school districts the authority to issue public health orders, like mask mandates and quarantines, would put “unguided and unbridled power in the hands of a public official,” violating the Cole County court’s ruling.

Schmitt added that he believed health decisions should be left to parents.

“The need for citizens to balance freedom and responsibility does not give you the right to do the balancing for parents and their schoolchildren,” Schmitt said. “You may believe that the public welfare calls for balancing away student’ freedoms for control measures; but that approach invites true lawlessness by ‘permit[ting] agencies to act unlawfully even in the pursuit of desirable ends.’”

Schmitt said there was precedent for the attorney general to enforce the law and protect the public from injury to the general welfare. If Hatley wanted to avoid a situation that “invites lawlessness,” he said, districts like Lee’s Summit should follow the law.

Hatley said the Lee's Summit School District was prepared to defend itself “vigorously” if Schmitt followed through on his threat to sue. He also placed Schmitt "on notice" to preserve various records as a result of Schmitt's threat of litigation, including recent letters to Missouri school districts and public health officials, communications and legal research regarding whether Schmitt has the authority to pursue legal action against school districts and records regarding Schmitt's office’s decision not to appeal the Cole County court ruling.

Hatley also requested records of all emails sent to or received by illegalmandates@ago.mo.gov, an email address Schmitt established for parents to send videos or pictures to assist in Schmitt's effort to identify school districts that continue to enforce health orders.

The Kearney School District Board of Education and Smithville School District are meeting in special sessions Monday evening in response to Schmitt’s letter. The Platte County School District said it will consider changes to its COVID mitigation strategies at its regular meeting on Thursday.

More than ever, education lies at the intersection of equity, housing, funding, and other diverse issues facing Kansas City’s students, families and teachers. As KCUR’s education reporter, I’ll break down the policies driving these issues in schools and report what’s happening in our region's classrooms. You can reach me at jodifortino@kcur.org.
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