Mediation Efforts Stall in School Board Lawsuit

Court-ordered mediation ordered by a federal judge in the lawsuit by Berryville resident Kenneth D. Liggins proved unsuccessful in Harrisonburg on Wednesday clearing the path for a  trial later this year. Liggins’s lawsuit alleges that the Clarke County School Board violated his civil rights when Chairperson Robina Bouffault directed him to stop speaking during a public comment portion of a meeting in 2008. Liggins is seeking $10 million in damages.

“I can only say that no settlement was reached” School Board Chariman Robina Bouffault said on Thursday evening. “The lawsuit will proceed as scheduled.”

Federal Judge Glen E. Conrad has set a jury trial in the case for Sept. 30 and Oct. 1. The suit stems from an April, 2008 school board meeting involving the reassignment of then D.G. Cooley Principal Brenda Jones, who had served in the position for five years. Bouffault allegedly asked Liggins to  to sit down after he claimed that the School Board violated Section 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 even though no formal decision had yet been voted on. When Liggins continued to speak Bouffault asked staff member Tom Judge to call the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office.Gavel

Court-ordered mediation is a common practice by judges in attempting to resolve disputes prior to trial. Although Wednesday’s mediation did not result in an agreement nothing prevents either side from re-engaging in the process between now and September. Based on reports about Wednesday’s session there still may be some hope for avoiding the costly legal expenses that will be incurred should the matter proceed to trial.

CCPS Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy said “The mediation session was held yesterday (Wednesday, May 19, 2010) and, while positive, no resolution was reached.”

Both Robina Bouffault and School Board member Janet Alger attended, along with legal counsel. The Clarke County School Board and it members are covered by litigation insurance purchased from the Virginia School Board Association.

Comments

  1. Right Winger says:

    Question…If the court rules in facor of the defendants, will the complainant be required to pay their costs?

    I sure hope so.

  2. Bubba D says:

    It seems to me this lawsuit would be more legitimate if Brenda Jones were to file it. Section seven of the 1964 Civil Rights Act is based mainly in the fair treatment of employees regardless of who they are affiliated with. We all know the outcome, Brenda Jones kept her position until her own voluntary retirement. All was well. Being told to sit down at a meeting is a bit extreme but it doesn’t seem like a violation of a civil right in this case. That of course, is my opinion. I also believe the school board will be required to step lightly in this matter because of the politically correct atmosphere that we live under today and this person will walk away with some amount of money. The lawyers will gain the most out of this, and at the end of the day, it will be yet another unnecessarry burden on our court system and a waste of time.

  3. Doug Landry says:

    I would agree with you, Bubba D. Was it handled in the best way? No, perhaps not. But…the chair is in control of the meeting, and if a speaker is deemed to be out of order, due to uttering inflammatory and/or accusatory statements without any proof, then I don’t see where any violation occurred.

    The only reference I can find is VII, Section 703, No.1, where it is unlawful for an employer to “discharge any individual…based on race…” It seems that Mr. Liggins is arguing that the only reason the acting superintendent was recommending that her contract not be renewed was because she is African American. True, she was the only minority principal in the county at the time, but I don’t think that race had anything to do with it. Whatever the real reasons, they were held in closed-session confidentiality and thus not able to be aired in public.

  4. R Carter says:

    Remember that the lawsuit is based on Bouffault’s claim of being denied the right to speak, not the action against the principal. The key here may be whether the School Board places a time limit on speakers, as most boards do. If Bouffault’s time expired and he was alerted to that, he’ll lose. If the board merely cut him off, he’s got grounds, but not to the tune of $10 million. If he wins, it’s the taxpayers who lose.

    • Doug Landry says:

      Ummm…it’s based on Liggins’ claim. Bouffault was chair, and cut him off after he made the remark about violating Section 7 of the CRA of 1964. There was nothing about exceeding a time limit. She shushed him because, as she stated at the time (albeit rather heatedly and angrily), he was making statements that, in her interpretation, were falsely accusatory and slanderous. It had nothing to do with his skin color.

  5. Tony Parrott says:

    You know I would expect someone in public office to be able to take some level of criticism. I can’t help but wonder that if Robina could have kept her composure for 3 minutes we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I do believe Robina has actually gotten better at taking criticism; at least publicly. Who said you can’t teach… well you know the rest.

    • Your propensity to criticize is tantamount to “nanny nanny boo boo.”
      Hindsight is always 20 20 and I suggest you consider your game of Robina bashing carefully if you intend to pursue a position on the School Board in the future.

      This man has a history of litigiousness and the School Board seems to have fallen victim to a frivolous lawsuit that any judge with a spine would have already tossed out.

      • Tony Parrott says:

        Sorry I don’t see this as “nanny nanny boo boo” I see it as a mistake that will eventually cost the tax payers of this county. If you say “This Man” has a history of litigiousness then she should have known this and held her composure. Even if she didn’t know this she should have recognized the volatility of the situation and kept her composure. If this was a trap the board didn’t fall into it, she did.
        As for bashing Robina I believe I gave her a complement. I basically said it appears she learned from her mistake.

        Also thanks for your concern on my political future but I don’t intend on seeking a position on the SB in the future.

      • Doug Landry says:

        Well said.

        The meeting, 2 years ago, was highly charged anyway. It was clear that – based on the numbers of folks who showed up to comment on a personnel matter that was never going to be discussed publicly (because the SB cannot legally do so) – a certain card was played from the start, and thus a particularly critical and negative audience showed up.

        For Mr. Liggins to make such claims, whether or not he himself believed them to be true, when the item in question was only going to come up in closed session, added verbal lighter fluid to the mix. The chair’s heated denunciation of his claims and request for a deputy to escort him out and such was perhaps over the top. Still…I didn’t see it then, and I don’t see it now, where civil rights were violated. The Chair has the preogative to maintain order and control of a meeting; if a speaker is directed to stop his or her remarks by the chair, the speaker should stop. Freedom of speech is relative; it’s not an absolute.

        • Tony Parrott says:

          Doug, my understanding of the First Amendment is to protect your right as an individual to speak out against your government or elected officials. Are you saying that the SB as a governing body has the right to censor you because they don’t like what you are saying? So, if you are saying nice things then you can talk? Isn’t that what the First Amendment was trying to protect, your right to be heard?
          As long as a person is not threatening harm or belligerent (cursing) at the elected official then they should have the right to speak during the public portion of the meeting within their allotted time.

          Now is this worth $10mil, NO, but it could be worth a public apology.

          • Doug Landry says:

            No, Tony, I’m not saying that the SB has the right to censor anything. What I’m saying is this: the Chair determined that his remarks were not merely something she didn’t like. She determined that he was making accusations not supported by any facts, about a topic that had yet to be discussed (and, indeed, would not be discussed in open session).

            Accusing the SB of violating Section 7 of the CRA of 1964 is a pretty serious charge, no? Robert’s Rules of Order advises all speakers that they should “be courteous in language and deportment – avoid all personalities, never allude to others by name or to motives!”
            (http://www.robertsrules.org/) Now…did the ensuing heated exchange between the chair and the speaker need to happen? Probably not. Was it a knee-jerk response to an inflammatory, accusatory statement? Perhaps.

            I think, though, given the negative charge that was in the air anyway, the speaker introducing such a [REDACTED] statement did not conform to what Robert’s Rules advised; the SB has always chosen to abide by RRoR in all of its meetings. I have been at many SB and BoS meetings where plenty of negative opinions on matters were allowed to proceed, but I have seen the respective chairs interrupt speakers whom they felt were crossing the line. That is one of the duties of the chair – to maintain a civil and orderly discourse.

          • Tony Parrott says:

            Ok, just checking. I must have misunderstood.
            Actually Roberts Rules (in a nutshell) defines how a board will do business so as to ensure the minority party or group has fair representation. I haven’t read the specific section you are referring to on how speakers are suppose to address the board but it sounds reasonable to me.
            I also understand boards don’t allow personal attacks and will cut people off if they cross that line; but I don’t see the accusation being out of line as long as it was done respectful. But then again I wasn’t in attendance that night.

            I do love the discussion though, it has been civil and thought provoking.

  6. Debacle Watcher says:

    The whole point of public comment is for the Board to listen to views of the public – prior to reaching a decision. Everyone knew the Cooley Principal would be discussed in closed session and if a citizen felt that her dismissal would violate law, he/she certainly has the right, and possibly the responsibility, to say such – ESPECIALLY before the decision is rendered. The man should have been alloted his time as long as he was not cursing and calling people names. His right as a citizen to speak was violated at the very least. The Chair overstepped reason and her bounds to have him carted away. That was wrong and should never have happened, and now the court must decide if her actions rose to a civil rights violation. The Chair’s righteous indignation is costing us a lot of money.

    • Doug Landry says:

      DW, I think youj’re missing the point. The speaker did not merely express a negative opinion about the pending motion by the acting superintendent. The word on the street was that she was going to be fired because of her race; that was not the case. Nobody outside of the SB, the acting superintendent, the director of personnel, and the principal know the real reasons, as it was slated to be discussed – as all personnel matters are – in closed session.

      No…the speaker went beyond just expressing disappoint or disagreement with a proposed motion. He accused the SB of violating a pretty significant federal statute, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Because the Chair determined that he was making slanderous, unsubstantiated accusations of illegal action, he was ruled out of order; he persisted in speaking; the chair subsequently directed a staff member to get a deputy to assist in restoring order and escort the disruptive speaker out of the meeting.

      Could/Should this have gone down differently? Yes. Freedom of speech is not absolute. Parameters are set on it all the time: one cannot swear in public in some localities; you cannot yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre or other space; you may not knowingly speak (slander) or print (libel) lies about another to impugn another’s honor, integrity, or reputation; etc. Robert’s Rules of Order, which the SB adopts as its framework for running every meeting at the startof every year, advises that all speakers should be courteous and maintain decorum and not devolve into negative personal attacks or baseless accusations. This speaker chose to do just that – accuse the SB of violating a federal law. The chair’s response, while perhaps more heated than it needed to be, was – in my opinion – not so egregious that a lawsuit was necessary.

      • Right Winger says:

        Of course word on the street was it was because of her race. When a black person is under fire, race is always brought up. Nevermind the quality of their work, or lack thereof.

        Ask any Middle School teacher and they’ll tell you there was a HUGE difference in the behavior of DGC kids versus BE.

        Race, like Patriotism, is the last bastion of cowards.

  7. Am I missing something D-Watch, or isn’t accusing the SB of racism essentially the same thing as calling them a name?

    The real issue here, in my opinion, is a disconnect between the speaker (and perhaps other members of the SB) and the school community, in not realizing and expecting the attendance and tone of the meeting and preparing as required. Seriously, how could they have been blindsided and subsequently sandbagged into exactly the response this particular person was seeking?

    I’m part of the DGC “family” – then and now – and I saw this coming from a mile away.

    • Doug Landry says:

      I agree, Bill. Given the time to get the community stoked up about it, by deflecting from more probable reasons for it, created a very charged atmosphere. Given the tight confines of the CCHS Library and such only added to the tension, as everyone was in close proximity. I thinkit was the fact that 4 of the 5 members were all new to their roles, at that time, and really had no idea what was coming.