The Blaine County School District and eight of its administrators have been sued by a pair of recent graduates alleging that the district unlawfully restricted their right to free speech while they were seniors at Wood River High School.
Dakota King Hutton and Emily Thayer filed the suit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho on Monday, outlining two separate instances in which they claim the public school violated their First Amendment rights.
Hutton’s claim centers around a 2017 AP Government assignment during which she polled 30 students on the performance of Superintendent GwenCarol Holmes, who has been named as a defendant, according to the filing. It alleges that the poll was deleted by administrators as an unlawful professional evaluation of the superintendent, in violation of “an unnamed Idaho law,” according to the court document.
Three of the five poll questions, which are included in the filing and match documents previously obtained by the Idaho Mountain Express, relate to Holmes’ job performance and positive or negative effects her leadership has had at the high school.
“While the Defendants told Ms. King Hutton that she had done nothing wrong, Ms. King Hutton was still reprimanded and given a no-grade for the assignment,” the filing states. “She suffered substantial embarrassment and emotional distress surrounding the claimed inappropriateness of her homework assignment and the subsequent publicity of the event in her school.”
Thayer’s allegation also dates back to 2017, when she served as student board representative to the School District’s board of trustees, a role that requires providing monthly updates during public board meetings. The court document alleges that at the direction of Holmes, administrators censored a portion of Thayer’s report asking the board to reconsider “unpopular” changes to the 2018 graduation date.
“Ms. Thayer was never provided a justification for the Defendant’s actions, and it can only be presumed that the school wished to silence criticism of its unpopular actions,” the filing states.
“My job was to give the board and the administration student feedback on activities, achievements and concerns,” Thayer said in a statement Wednesday. “I do not believe the School District had any interest in listening to or receiving criticisms from students when I was the student board representative. I hope that this action will help other students understand how strong their First Amendment rights really are.”
Aside from attorney fees and costs, the lawsuit does not seek monetary damages from the district.
“Primarily, Emily and Dakota are seeking an apology from the district, and for the district to acknowledge that students have rights protected by the Constitution that cannot be infringed upon,” their lawyer, Sam Linnet, told the Idaho Mountain Express on Wednesday. “They don’t want to bankrupt the School District. The point is not to get some big pile of cash in their pockets. What they’re really doing is standing up for their rights, and showing that people in power cannot go unchecked.”
During the school board’s regular meeting Tuesday night, trustees acknowledged “pending litigation” during discussion of amendments to a policy outlining students’ publications as part of a curriculum or class. Citing a lawsuit, the board opted to table the discussion until it could consult legal counsel.
No trustees were named as defendants in the suit. In addition to Holmes, board Clerk Amanda LaChance, Director of Communications Heather Crocker, Director of Technology Teresa McGoffin, Wood River High School Principal John Pearce, Vice Principal Keith Nelson, Silver Creek Principal Mike Glenn and an unnkown member of the technology department who allegedly removed Hutton’s poll from the district’s Google drive were all named for individual roles in the claims made by the filing.
Holmes addressed the suit in an email sent to all district staff Wednesday afternoon.
“The District is aware of the lawsuit and the District attorneys are reviewing it,” she wrote. “The District offered help to both students so that they could express their opinions in the proper manner and they declined. We value student voice and work hard to make sure students have the appropriate means to express their opinions.”