SUNBURY — A Big Walnut parent has filed a lawsuit against the district, alleging her First Amendment rights were violated during a Feb. 17 Board of Education meeting in which she was told to “zip it” by Doug Crowl, board president.
In Ashley Ryder v. Big Walnut Local Schools, the plaintiff alleges the board’s rules provide the president “the unbridled discretion to silence speech he finds offensive,” which the lawsuit states is in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
“Crowl was not finished after silencing Ryder’s speech,” the lawsuit continues in its allegation. “Indeed, Crowl continued to chill the rest of the public’s criticisms with an additional threatening speech after Ryder left the lectern.”
Due to interest in the pending case, there was a full house during the school board’s nearly three-and-a-half hour meeting on March 17. Fifteen speakers had three minutes each to have their say.
The first speaker spoke of inclusion and civility. The next speaker said she was dismayed by how a couple members of the public were treated by the board at its Feb. 17 meeting.
One speaker said Ryder’s First Amendment rights were violated.
However, another speaker told the board to keep up the good work and to press forward undeterred. Another speaker thanked Crowl for his “steadfast leadership” through the “COVID nonsense and overreaction.” A third person said Crowl had more patience than they would have had. A couple of the speakers felt that board member Steve Fujii and former district Superintendent Steve Mazzi (who spoke at the Feb. 17 meeting) violated rules of decorum.
After 11 people had spoken, Treasurer Jeremy Buskirk said the 30-minute time limit for public participation had been exceeded, and Crowl moved to extend the period, which passed by a 5-1 vote. Fujii was the lone no vote, and he explained that it’s not that he doesn’t want to hear what others have to say, but that he wants to proceed with the meeting agenda.
The next person who spoke told the board to focus on academics instead of politics, and let the administrators do their jobs instead of micro-managing them. One person spoke in support of Syntero, a mental health provider for the district, and the reason Ryder spoke to the board in the first place. The last person asked the board to formally vote on the moment of silence and spoke against Syntero.
During the board members’ items of interest, Fujii said, “I want to be clear with this board that Big Walnut is quickly becoming a district I struggle to recognize. I say this because of this board, the members of this board, honestly. Somewhere we started to lose our way. Board meetings have become more about us as individuals, and I believe this to be a problem. Theatrics from board members have got to stop from our side, per my perspective. … I believe the lack of focus we have provided has caused actual concerns within the district. My real concern, aside from legal action, is the lack of clarity that is leading to a lack of coherence for our administrators and our staff.”
As an example, it was noted there were over 30 Freedom of Information Act requests this year, when normally there is one or two per year.
“I believe humans are fully capable of disagreeing with each other without descending into name-calling and mocking each other,” board member Sherri Dorsch said. “The adults in this community really need to model self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness and relationship skills.”
Fujii asked the board to reconsider its Feb. 10 decision to create a standing community relations committee consisting of the public and a couple board members “based on new information.” He provided six reasons for his opposition, among them being that school board members are always available to discuss matters with parents. Fujii said that instead of the committee, the district could have quarterly town hall or special meetings devoted to public discourse. Dorsch seconded the motion.
“When I brought up that committee, it was in the hopes of better communication,” Crowl said. “I have since realized that until the division of this community is settled, we won’t be able to have civil conversations.”
Board members Angela Graziosi and Alice Nicks agreed with Fujii, and the reconsideration was unanimous.
Also at the meeting, Crowl said board members have submitted 43 policies for review, so a work session is in order.
At a special board meeting on March 15, after emerging from executive session, the full board considered board policy 0169.1. It was “recommended that the Big Walnut School Board of Education suspend all enforcement of the policy at board meetings that restrict abusive, personally directed or antagonistic speech until such time that the policy can be reviewed and amended and for no less than 60 days. It is further recommended that the board authorize legal counsel the authority to enter the suspension with the federal court to the extent necessary in order to mitigate pending litigation.”
The board voted unanimously in favor without discussion.
Bill Shelby spoke during the public participation of that meeting about leadership of the board. “As of late, I am alarmed about the lack of leadership skills, and the inability of the board president to carry out his duties,” Shelby said. “He conducts himself in an inappropriate manner as a leader by disrespecting our taxpaying citizens and failing with an ‘F’ to abide by his oath of office and failing to uphold the United States Constitution and the First Amendment and the right of free speech.”
The board’s next regularly scheduled meeting is April 21, the district website said. However, a special meeting will take place tonight at 6:30 p.m., where the board is expected to enter into executive session “to confer with an attorney concerning disputes involving the board that are the subject of pending or imminent court action,” the agenda said.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0906 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.