There have been a variety of reported conflicts in school districts over curriculum changes and materials addressing racism, including the recent controversy in New York where white families were asked to chose between such “white identities” as “white supremacist” and “white traitor.” Such controversies make for poor lawsuits since they reflect policy, curricula, or programmatic choices of a given district. It becomes a legal matter when a district punishes parents for objecting to such material. That is part of the allegations raised in a recently filed lawsuit by the conservative group Judicial Watch. It is representing fired high school football coach Dave Flynn who alleges that he was terminated by the Dedham High School after raising objections as a parent over the course material in his daughter’s World Geography and Ancient History class. While I have not seen the school’s answer, the lawsuit highlights troubling allegations over how the district handled the matter and allegedly retaliated against Flynn.
By all accounts, Flynn was a popular coach who reportedly turned around a losing football program and had good relations with the students. (There were protests after he was fired). He is also a parent with two daughters at the school and became concerned after reviewing the material for the course. Here is what the complaint states:
20. During the first week of school, Plaintiff and his wife observed that the instruction their daughter was receiving in “World Geography and Ancient History I” was unrelated to the ancient history and world geography subjects described on the Dedham Public Schools website. Instead, the instruction concerned issues of race, gender, stereotypes, prejudices, discrimination, and politics, among others. In one assignment, Plaintiff’s daughter was asked to consider various “risk factors” and “mitigating factors” that two people identified as “white” and the other identified as “black” – purportedly might use to assess each other on a city street. Included among the various factors were skin color, gender, age, physical appearance, and attire. “Black,” “aggressive body language” and “wrong neighborhood” were among the “risk factors” purportedly assessed by the person identified as “white.” “White” and “Police officer” were among the “risk factors” purportedly assessed by the person identified as “black.”
21. Plaintiff and his wife also observed that the instruction materials included a cartoon version of their daughter’s teacher -a “Memoji” – wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, which Plaintiff and his wife reasonably interpreted as the teacher expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement during class time.
Flynn states that he raised his concerns with the school and was later fired. The school sent out a note to families with children in the football program on January 20th that stated “We met with Mr. Flynn today because he has expressed significant philosophical differences with the direction, goals and values of this school district” and, as a result, it decided that there was a need for “different leadership for the program at this time.”
However, Flynn says that he objected to the material as a parent and that his record shows no animus or discrimination or obstruction to school policies. Indeed, he was thinking of pulling his children from the school and ultimately did so. The lawsuit highlights the role of the Superintendent Michael Welch. Ironically, when Welch became the Superintendent he stated that attracting people to teaching was a priority. Flynn made such a choice and met with Welch to voice his concerns about the content of a class impacting his children. Again, this is from the complaint:
26. On October 23, 2020, Plaintiff and his wife met with Superintendent Welch, at Superintendent Welch’s invitation, to discuss the concerns raised in the October 14, 2020 email.
27. After the meeting, Plaintiff and his wife still did not feel that their concerns were adequately addressed, and, on October 23, 2020, Plaintiff sent an email to Dedham School Committee Vice-Chairperson White and committee members Bilafer and Briggs, the same three school committee members to whom he had forwarded the October 14, 2020 email. The email summarized Plaintiffs concerns and Superintendent Welch’s response. Plaintiff concluded by stating: The Superintendent has had the opportunity to make sure the Dedham teachers conduct themselves as professionals and to teach the courses objectively and without biased opinions. He chose not to. I believe that the real men and women in the world are the ones who have the ability to compromise, especially in extremely controversial situations. Compromise allows people to experience life as a team. This is where unity brings individual pride together and relationships begin to strengthen. I believe all relationships are based on compromise. The Superintendent was not willing to compromise. I explained to him that if the teacher teaches the course objectively and removes the BLM logo from the class, people will soon get over the fact that the class was purposely created without notifying parents and without having a visible course curriculum, syllabus and learning objective. Apparently, it does not mean much to him that the Dedham Public School System is losing two wonderful students.
28. Plaintiff also forwarded his October 23, 2020 email to approximately twenty other concerned parents. On information and belief, Vice-Chairperson White and committee members Bilafer and Briggs knew other parents had received Plaintiffs email. 29. On October 30, 2020, Plaintiff and his wife removed their children from Dedham Public Schools. At that time, they believed the issue was behind them.
It was not “behind them” obviously. Flynn was then fired.
We have to see the other side to this controversy from the school district but on its face it raises troubling questions on both the judgment of the school district as well as its respect for free speech. The complaint advances to claims based on retaliation for exercising the right to protected petitions and protected speech. This will be an interesting lawsuit to watch.