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Slavery petition incident at Park Hill South High School was not what it seemed, federal lawsuit claims

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Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
The four-count lawsuit claims the defendants violated the students’ First Amendment, due process and equal protection rights, and seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages as well as the students' reinstatement.

The lawsuit says the much-publicized petition to "Start Slavery Again" all began as private bantering between a biracial student and a Black student on the football team, which eventually found its way onto social media and touched off a media firestorm.

The widely reported racial incident in September at Park Hill South High School in Kansas City was far different from how the school portrayed it to the public, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Friday.

News outlets, including KCUR, reported that students had circulated a petition calling for the return of slavery. But the lawsuit alleges the petition started as private bantering between a biracial student and a Black student.

The petition then found its way onto social media, touching off a media firestorm and leading to the expulsion of the biracial student and the disciplining of three other students who had “commented” on the petition.

Those four — the biracial student and the three disciplined students — are now 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 four-count lawsuit claims the defendants violated the students’ First Amendment, due process and equal protection rights, and seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages. It also seeks the students’ reinstatement and the expungement of their school records regarding the incident.

All four students are represented by the law firm of Arthur Benson II, a prominent civil rights attorney.

“Fourteen-year-olds sometimes unwisely shoot their mouths off, instantly regretting it but causing no harm, no disruption,” Benson said of the Park Hill South incident. “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.”

Benson is perhaps best known for the school desegregation lawsuit he filed in 1977 challenging the racial segregation of Kansas City Public Schools and surrounding suburban school districts. A federal judge eventually ruled in that case that Kansas City Public Schools and the state of Missouri had violated the civil rights of Black children, and ordered them to take steps to desegregate — becoming one of the largest school desegregation plans in the country.

Nicole Kirby, a spokeswoman for the Park Hill School District, said the district acted appropriately.

"As this lawsuit describes, we took prompt, decisive action to enforce our policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and uncivil behavior," Kirby said in an email to KCUR. "The suit shares that we expelled one student and suspended three others for 180 days. We will be able to share further details when we respond to this lawsuit in court."

"In on the joke"

Friday's lawsuit attempts to contextualize the September incident by describing a school district that was once nearly all-white, and in recent years has seen increasing enrollment of Black and Hispanic students.

But the lawsuit says the district only had “mixed success” in dealing with demands for equity and equal treatment, “making it difficult for ninth grade students 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 four plaintiffs in the case are identified only as Plaintiffs A, B, C and D. All were ninth graders at Park Hill South and members of the football team when the incident occurred.

As described in the lawsuit, the football team was on a bus en route to an away game on Sept. 16, when the biracial student, identified as Plaintiff A, and the Black student, identified as Student X, engaged in “playful bantering about jobs and slaves.”

During the ride, Plaintiff A, who is Black and Brazilian, typed a three-word “petition” onto the website Change.org, stating, “Start slavery again.” He showed the screen to his teammates, including Student X, and they all laughed about it and encouraged him to post it on social media, according to the lawsuit.

By the time the students returned to the high school after winning their game, 11 people had “liked” the petition and others had shared it. Plaintiff A was among the commenters on his own petition, saying that Student X “needs a job.” Plaintiff B, who is white, commented, “I love slavery.” Plaintiff C, who is also white, commented, “I hate Blacks.” Plaintiff D, who is white and Asian, commented, “I want a slave.”

The lawsuit claims that the petition caused no disruption at the school and was not intended to be taken literally.

“The ninth graders who posted, liked, or commented on the ‘petition,’ as well as the Black, Student X, who participated in the creation and sharing of the ‘petition,’ all viewed it as a joke and those who commented on it wanted to be in on the joke,” the lawsuit states.

"Unacceptable and racist statements"

That same day, however, the school district was dealing with video posted on TikTok encouraging students to vandalize Park Hill school restrooms and post videos of their vandalism on social media. A parent, who was alerted to the TikTok threat, complained the next day to Park Hill South’s principal about the slavery petition and its comments.

The students were interviewed by vice principals at the school and admitted their participation in the petition, which they characterized as 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 quickly followed up with stories assuming that white students had posted the petition. On Sept. 22, Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd sent a letter to the entire school district community referring to “unacceptable and racist statements” that had been posted online. The letter generated additional news stories.

On. Nov. 3, after a hearing before the school board, Plaintiff A, the biracial student, was expelled and Plaintiffs B, C and D were handed 180-day suspensions.

Student X, the Black student, was not charged or punished.

“Defendants, while publicly and widely characterizing the 'petition' as 'racist,' did not inform the Park Hill School District Community or the public that the “petition” had been created by a biracial Black and Brazilian student with the encouragement of a Black student or that the 'petition' and comments arose from a laughing and bantering group of multi-racial ninth graders for no purpose other than an attempt to be funny, making fun of racial stereotypes,” the lawsuit states.

“The failure of the Defendants to be candid and truthful about the ‘petition’ fed the public ‘firestorm’ reaction to what the Defendants themselves called a ‘racist’ act and resulted in hundreds if not thousands of angry texts, emails, phone calls, and social media postings, many calling for some of the Defendants to resign or be discharged.”

The lawsuit says the expulsion and suspensions were imposed not to maintain a functioning educational environment at Park Hill schools, but “for the personal or political needs of Defendants to appear publicly to impose harsh punishment on students who had purportedly circulated ‘racist statements.’”

The lawsuit attempts to provide some historical context by providing a brief description of Platte County’s slave-owning history. It notes that in 1840, 9.6% of Platte County’s 9,000 residents were enslaved, and that in the 1850s, white Platte County residents participated in the “Bleeding Kansas” border war aimed at extending slavery to Kansas.

It goes on to say that Missouri did not require its school districts, including the predecessors of the Park Hill School District, to pay for the education of its Black residents when it did not provide separate schools.

“With deep roots in anti-Black prejudices in Platte County, including in Parkville, the Park Hill School District, and all Defendants, failed to address effectively a racially derived student culture that grew in its schools as racially diverse students enrolled in significant numbers,” the lawsuit states.

“The racially-derived student culture that thrived at Park Hill South, and was especially present among the members of the ninth grade football team," the lawsuit continues, "prized multi-racial social acceptance as evidenced by frequent use of racial slurs in non-hostile situations, openly playing ‘Not Clean’ Hip Hop music in the presence of coaches and other adults, favoring clothing and other external manifestations of minority cultures, and bantering and joking about racial topics, all without any guidance from Defendants as to how these ninth graders should navigate the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.”

Updated: November 15, 2021 at 1:02 PM CST
This story has been updated to include the response of the Park Hill School District.
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