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'Unprecedented ruling': Teachers who sued over mandatory 'anti-racist' 'equity training' ordered by Obama-appointed judge to cover school district's attorney fees

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Two Springfield, Missouri, teachers who sued over a mandatory "anti-racist" "equity training" were ordered by an Obama-appointed judge to cover the school district's nearly $313,000 in attorney's fees.

In 2021, teachers Brooke Henderson and Jennifer Lumley filed a lawsuit against their school district, Springfield Public Schools, over mandated "equity training" to "learn about oppression, white supremacy, and systemic racism." According to the complaint, the required instruction pushed school district staff to "commit" to equity and "become Anti-Racist educators."

The training stated that to be "anti-racist," teachers must "advocat[e] for changes in the political, economic, and social life," the lawsuit noted.

"SPS promotes and reinforces a view of race essentialism that divides Americans into oppressor and oppressed based solely on their skin color. SPS sets up a dichotomy between white and non-white races that depicts whiteness as inherently racist and a tool of oppression," the suit stated.

The lawsuit added that district officials told staff members that their pay would be reduced if they refused the training. The teachers' suit accused the school district of pushing programming that infringed on educators' freedom of speech.

The equity training "created and continues to create a chilling effect on the speech of SPS staff because the district adopts a viewpoint about equity and expects staff to share that view. By binding equity to staff's job responsibilities, the district implicitly threatens staff with punishment—up to and including dismissal—for failing to adhere to that view."

In March, the district court ruled that the teachers' accusations were "frivolous political disagreement." Obama-appointed District Judge Douglas Harpool wrote that the educators' lawsuit "trivialize[d] the important work of the federal judiciary."

"The court is mindful Defendants have incurred substantial legal fees in defending this claim," the judge stated. "Taxpayer dollars which could have been devoted to enhancing the educational opportunity of the students served by the district have instead been diverted to the defense of this lawsuit. The students of the district deserve better. So too do the taxpayers whose hard-earned money is taxed by the district for the purpose of educating the children of the district in which they reside."

Southeastern Legal Foundation, the firm representing the teachers, appealed the "unprecedented and overtly hostile" ruling on Friday.

"In nearly 50 years of bringing lawsuits under §1983 civil rights law, SLF has never faced attorney fees sanctions for challenging unconstitutional government action at any level," SLF litigation director Braden Boucek said. "This unprecedented ruling is sure to close the courthouse doors to teachers and parents."

"This is an effort by a lone agenda-driven federal judge to deny concerned teachers and parents the right to seek redress in court and to protect so-called 'anti-racist' training in Missouri's public schools," SLF general counsel Kim Hermann stated.

Springfield Public Schools told the Daily Caller News Foundation that it was "pleased" with the judge's order.

"We agree with the court's opinion that this investment would have been better spent on students," SPS said. "The district's response to this legal action, including the pursuit of appropriate reimbursement, represents a broader commitment to defending itself against baseless attacks."

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