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Judge rules against Park Hill South students who circulated 'start slavery again' petition

A group of students at Park Hill South High School in Kansas City allegedly circulated a petition calling to bring back slavery.
Park Hill School District
The Park Hill South High School students were freshmen members of the freshman football team.

The student who posted the petition was eventually expelled and the other three were suspended for 180 days.

A federal judge has declined to readmit four Park Hill South High School freshmen who were suspended or expelled for their involvement in a petition to “start slavery again.”

U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough ruled on Tuesday that while the students were likely to suffer irreparable harm if he did not grant their request, they had not shown they were likely to succeed on the merits of their claims.

The ninth-graders were on a school bus headed to an away football game last September when one of them, who had been bantering with a Black student about jobs and slaves, drafted a petition on Change.org titled “Start slavery again.”

The student later shared the petition with the football team’s Snapchat group, some of whom “liked” the petition. One of the plaintiffs commented on the petition, saying, “I love slavery.” Another commented, “I hate blacks.” And a third commented, “I want a slave.”

After the petition came to school administrators’ attention, Park Hill South interviewed the four students, who, while admitting their participation, characterized it as a joke.

The student who posted the petition was eventually expelled and the other three were suspended for 180 days.

The incident made national headlines, but the case was not as cut and dried as it appeared: the student who posted the petition is biracial and one of the other plaintiffs also is biracial.

The four sued the school district and various school administrators, claiming their First Amendment and due process rights were violated, and sought reinstatement and expungement of their school records. The students said the use of racial slurs was common at Park Hill South, “most often in friendly bantering,” and noted that the instigator of the incident was Black and was not disciplined.

Asked to comment on Bough’s ruling, Arthur Benson, the students’ lawyer, said the incident resulted from “youthful bad judgment” that originated among Black and biracial students.

“Three whites boys in similar bad judgment wanted in on the joke, intended only for the freshman players,” Benson said in an email. “This bad judgment was punished as heinous acts that no one now still claims them to be.”

In his 14-page order denying their request, Bough agreed that the students were likely to suffer irreparable harm and the balance of harms weighed in favor of granting their motion. But he also found that they were not like to succeed on the merits of their claims if the case goes to trial and that the public interest weighed in favor of denying them the relief they requested.

Citing a Supreme Court case, Bough wrote, “A school may constitutionally regulate speech materially disrupting the school environment upon a showing ‘that its action was caused by something more than a mere desire to avoid the discomfort and unpleasantness that always accompany an unpopular viewpoint.’”

Bough noted that the incident had drawn national attention, as well as concerned messages from teachers and parents stating that children were scared to come to school because of the petition.

Although Bough said the 14- and 15-year-old boys didn’t intend the petition to be circulated beyond the freshman football team, “the record establishes the Petition caused a substantial disruption to PHS (Park Hill South) and Park Hill SD (School District) such that Defendants were justified in disciplining Plaintiffs.”

A spokesperson for the school district was not immediately available for comment.

Benson said he had yet to determine whether, in light of Bough’s ruling, he would persist with the lawsuit.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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