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Albemarle judge dismisses anti-racism lawsuit against school division

An Albemarle County Circuit Court judge dismissed a civil lawsuit Friday that alleged that the county school board’s anti-racism policy discriminates against students and creates a culture of hostility.

“I think you are wrong and your case is going to show it,” Judge Claude Worrell told the plaintiffs’ attorneys during the hearing. “The law doesn’t support you.”

At the end of the hearing, Worrell said the policy in question is not perfect. But he said the case laid out by attorneys for parents who filed it is not strong enough to continue. The School Board had argued that the plaintiffs lacked standing to file the lawsuit and failed to show how they are were harmed by the policy’s implementation.

Albemarle spokesman Phil Giaramita said that the division was pleased that the court agreed with its position.

“Judge Worrell’s decision is very encouraging in terms of our commitment to establish and sustain an equitable school community that rejects all forms of racism,” Giaramita said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said after the hearing that they would need to see the specific orders in order to determine next steps, including an appeal.

Worrell ended the hearing by asking the attorneys representing the school board to prepare orders for the granting of two of the motions: a dismissal of the lawsuit and a “plea in bar." Richmond-based attorneys from Harman, Claytor, Corrigan and Wellman are representing the School Board and division.

The Alliance for Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based nonprofit, represented the eight students and nine parents who filed the lawsuit in December. They claimed the school division violated their civil rights, including freedom of speech and freedom from religious and viewpoint discrimination by implementing the policy.

The complaint was largely based on anti-racism lessons piloted at Henley Middle School that focused on bias, race, identity, culture, and empathy through readings, activities and question prompts. Slides from those lessons were referenced several times during Friday’s hearing.

Vincent Wagner, senior counsel with ADF’s Center for Parental Rights, said the issue wasn’t that the schools were teaching about racism but that they were personalizing it to students in the room.

He pointed to one activity that defined the dominant culture in the U.S. as “white, middle class, Christian, and cisgender” and asked students to sort different identities into the dominant culture box. In filings, ADF attorneys have said this portrayal of culture “teems with racial stereotypes.”

“… Come on, it’s a conceptual framework for a discussion to teach children," Worrell told the ADF attorneys. "What are you afraid of? … You never tell the court what the problem is with teaching kids in this way."

The School Board has argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because the plaintiffs lack standing to sue and failed to show how they were discriminated against or harmed. Additionally, the provisions of the Constitution of Virginia that the plaintiffs allege the School Board violated cannot be enforced without an underlying statute, according to the School Board’s attorneys.

“In the end, plaintiffs are asking this court to create a new cause of action that has not existed in order for them to sue the School Board,” schools attorney Jeremy Capps said.

The plaintiff’s proposed injunction would have stopped the school board from implementing, enforcing or engaging in policies, practices and conduct that “inculcate racial and religious stereotypes and treat students differently based on race” and discipline students for opposing the anti-racism policy, among other actions.

Worrell quickly cut in after Wagner started speaking during his arguments to ask if he had read the anti-racism policy and how exactly the policy discriminates against students. Wagner responded that the answer is in how the policy is implementing and pointed to examples of lessons and resources for teachers.

Several times during the hearing, Worrell asked for more specifics about what happened to the students that allowed them to bring a lawsuit and appeared skeptical of the plaintiffs’ claims.

Wagner said that the fact the policy is being implemented gives the plaintiffs standing to sue.

“No, it doesn’t,” Worrell said. “There must be something that triggers your ability to come to court.”

Wagner said the policy’s implementation is affecting students’ lives, which is why they brought the suit.

“The very act of educating changes children’s lives,” Worrell said. “Tell me why changing lives is now actionable.”

Worrell said the plaintiff’s arguments are unprovable and that “it’s just not true” that implementing the policy discriminates against white students.

As part of Wagner’s arguments, he pointed to one activity in the pilot lesson in which students were to create anti-racist vision statements stating how they would change the way they look, think, sound, and act.

Worrell then asked: “Isn’t that what education does? Change the way you think and speak.”

He used as an example students learning at school that using the n-word is not an appropriate way to speak about people.

“Isn’t there value in that?” he asked. “… [The] parents and students don’t like that they are doing it this way. That doesn’t give you standing.”

If the plaintiffs had their way, Worrell said, the school board would have to create individualized education plans and provide one-on-one tutoring for students in order to not make them uncomfortable.

“I think it happens during education that certain people are made to feel uncomfortable about history and their place in it,” Worrell said.


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