Today, NPR reported that the Forest Hills School District offered to settle the lawsuit surrounding the Culture of Kindness Resolution, a written document created in part between Sara Jonas and several local residents and implemented in a flurry of chaos over a year ago.
In June of 2022, members of the Forest Hills School District Board of Education Linda Hausfeld, Bob Bibb and Sara Jonas voted in support of a resolution that banned assignments where students would have to consider their race, socioeconomic class, religion, gender identity and sexuality. Board members Leslie Rasmussen and Katie Stewart voted against the resolution.
Soon after, a group of parents and teachers filed a federal lawsuit claiming the resolution violated their constitutional rights.
In October the judge assigned to the case issued a ruling on a motion to dismiss by the district. At that time the district issued a statement stating they intended to continue the fight to enact the language of the resolution “vigorously”.
It is possible that the district decided to pivot now to settle the lawsuit as a step in the right direction for all students and a reprieve for teachers who may have felt a chilling effect in their educational approach due to the resolution. Alternatively, the district may have considered that settling is a way to reduce risk of insurance premiums rising since insurance was primarily covering the legal fees to defend the Resolution. Certainly rescinding the resolution and ending the suit would allow the newly formed board for the year ahead an opportunity to start anew.
However, there may be other factors that influenced the district’s move to settle the lawsuit. These factors certainly could be rooted in the interest to do what is best for the district, students and teachers. Or, it may have been inspired by other less altruistic motivations.
Perhaps the board considered the judge’s recent statement to be indicative that the ultimate ruling would be against them in court. In the ruling issued on October 26, 2023, the judge fell just short of calling Sara Jonas a liar by writing, “It defies logic and the basic conventions of the English language to argue that the Resolution was ‘only a statement of belief’ and not a change to existing school policies” and perhaps the district attorneys considered the ruling a sign they could potentially lose in court.
In addition, the legal timeline was moving towards the deadline for the discovery phase of the case and discovery would have required the district to provide documents requested by the plaintiffs. The exposure of unelected community members that could come from depositions and discovery evidence may have been considered a risk by the district and unelected individuals that were involved. Deposition invitations had likely been issued, and would discern the level of involvement and awareness of the evolution and ultimate passing of the resolution.
Several unelected individuals demonstrated knowledge of the Resolution prior to the vote to pass the Resolution and ahead of the full board even being aware of the Resolution or the language in the document. A public records request produced an email from Ken Kuhn, who recently lost his bid for a board seat this past November. In the email, Kuhn demonstrates he knew about the resolution even before all board members had been informed and prior to the Resolution being posted to the board agenda as noted in our blog post in October 2023.
In addition, Sara Jonas named another resident, an un-elected person, as one of the originators of the resolution in the initial deposition (page 131), and admitted through her deposition that others outside the district had seen the document prior to its passage. Considering the name was provided in the deposition, it is possible that the unelected individual may have received an invitation to be deposed. Considering the unsavory personal publicity that a deposition could generate, the approaching timeline could certainly be reason enough for any resident to push the district to drop the lawsuit.
If the pressure from possible unwilling deponents and the risk of losing the case wasn’t the primary motivator, it is possible that the district may have been motivated to settle the case because recent activity at the statehouse to enact several bills that would establish similar intent have made progress, and they may find it easier to let the state take the lead.
One state-led example affecting higher-education, Senate Bill 83, has recently passed the senate and only needs approval at the House before reaching the Governor’s desk. SB 83 is a bill targeted at universities and higher education that — like the "Culture of Kindness Resolution" — prohibits mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training unless the training is mandatory to comply with state and federal law, professional licensure requirements or to get accreditation or grants. The bill defines controversial beliefs or policy as “any belief or policy that is the subject of political controversy, including issues such as climate policies, electoral politics, foreign policy, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, immigration policy, marriage, or abortion.” For more on SB83, see this article by the Ohio Capital Journal.
Residents and parents should stay alert, and consider emailing and calling the district to convey your sentiments on their decision to settle the lawsuit. In addition, consider reviewing all proposed bills by the state as there are a number that will affect primary and secondary education and emailing our elected representatives.
We will continue to watch to see if evidence of behavior and actions by the board or administrators aligns to a shift in opinion about the resolution’s intent or outcomes, as no statement from the district has yet been released.
Without a statement explaining the motivation, residents may rejoice in the settlement offer and enjoy the holidays knowing the Culture of Kindness Resolution is rescinded while also considering that the board members behind the resolution that gained Sara Jonas national notoriety may not have chosen to settle for altruistic reasons and our oversight is still necessary in 2024.
The views and opinions expressed by individuals and entities on this blog are their own and do not reflect the views or positions of AdvocateFHSD.org.
Welcome to AdvocateFHSD! We’re so happy to have you here. Strong public schools = strong communities. Here, we strive to engage and inform the FHSD community, and empower residents to be the best advocates for our students, teachers, administrators, and district.