Lawsuit: Madison school board silenced critics of arming teachers

Lawsuit: Madison school board silenced critics of arming teachers
FOX19 NOW/file

BUTLER COUNTY, OH (FOX19) - Madison school district officials illegally prevented relatives and friends of students from speaking out against a new policy to arm teachers and other staff members in the aftermath of a 2016 school shooting, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The school board “has engaged in a concerted campaign designed to chill and silence” them from further public criticism of its actions by imposing prior restraints on their ability to participate in public meetings, the suit states.

It also alleges district officials fabricated requirements as barriers to public participation that do not appear in the school board’s written rules, has rules that are unconstitutionally vague, and overbroad, impermissibly content-based, and restrictive to suit their interest.

The school board has relied upon these “unconstitutional rules to restrain critics’ speech in violation of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights,” essentially illegally discriminating against their viewpoints and identities, the suit states.

The plaintiffs are parent Sandra Ison whose child attends a school in the Madison district; Clermont County resident James Cullen; a grandfather - Billy Ison - whose grandson attends a school; Butler County resident Carolyn Patrick; Grandmother Abby Ison whose grandson attends one of the schools.

In a statement, Madison Superintendent Lisa Tuttle-Huff called the allegations a a gross mischaracterization and and said they would be dealt with in court.

“There is nothing unlawful about the Madison Local School Board’s regulation of public participation at its meetings,” her statement reads. "The Board fully complies with the Ohio Open Meetings Act, and throughout the process of deciding whether to authorize certain personnel to carry firearms on school property, the Board has provided a forum for all viewpoints.

“It is unfortunate that a small number of individuals feel compelled to resort to litigation, but the Board will defend decisions it believes to be in the best interest of the Madison community.”

The suit goes on to accuse the school board of severely disciplined students who participated in a national school safety walkout event, including one student who suffered life-threatening injuries in the February 2016 shooting.

Telatives and friends of the students who were victims in the shooting and hope to speak out has been met with censorship and condemnation from the school, according to the lawsuit.

For example, the board had one male student physically removed from a meeting because it did not like his point of view and has further prohibited the other from speaking at public meetings at all, according to the suit.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction asking the judge to ban the school district from limiting free speech at meetings.

This is the second lawsuit Madison has faced over guns in schools.

A judge is expected to issue a decision by week’s end into a lawsuit seeking to halt arming teachers and other staff members at a school district in the northern Cincinnati suburbs.

Butler County Judge Charles Pater will release it Thursday or Friday, court officials said Tuesday.

He indicated during oral arguments in his courtroom Monday he will rule in favor of Madison Local Schools.

The suit alleges Madison Local Schools recently passed policy violates Ohio law because it doesn’t ensure school employees will have more than 700 hours of training the suit contends are required before the are permitting to take guns into classrooms.

The plaintiffs are Erin Gabbard, Aimee Robson, Dallas Robson, Benjamin Tobey and Benjamin Adams, on behalf of themselves and their children.

They are represented by Gupta Wessler LLC of Columbus, Ohio and Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund.

Ohio law permits school boards to decide whether to allow teachers and other staff to go armed into school buildings.

The school district contends the 26 hours of training required in its policy is permissible.

But the judge noted Monday that his interpretation of the law is less hours would be required of school staff than peace officers.

The judge will continue to review both sides of the issue and the law before making a final decision, court officials said Tuesday.

This comes as school districts both locally and nationally struggle to find ways to protect students in the event of a shooting on campus.

The issue came to the forefront again last year after 17 students died in a shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Safety is a particularly sensitive issue in the Madison school district.

That’s where a student opened fire nearly three years ago on Feb. 29, 2016, shooting two classmates at Madison’s Junior/Senior High School.

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Ohio law permits school boards to decide whether to allow teachers and other staff to go armed into school buildings, but Ohio’s Legislature has mandated that they be well-trained.

Other school districts in the Tri-State have passed similar rules allowing teachers to be armed, including Blanchester schools in Clinton County and Williamsburg ones in Clermont County.

Madison Local School Board unanimously passed the measure allowing teachers and other staff to carry guns on campus in April.

At that time, they said in a statement that school staff’s ability to be prepared and equipped to defend and protect students “is essential in creating and preserving a proper learning environment.”

They must receive written permission first from the superintendent and “must be permitted under Ohio law to carry a concealed handgun and must undergo response to active shooter training and re-certify each year prior to being authorized to convey and/or possess deadly weapons” in the school safety zone, the ordinance states.

The parents who are suing now, the suit states, "know that safeguarding students from such tragic situations is of utmost importance as several of their children were present at the school that day. And they know that the Board, administrators, teachers, parents and community members alike are trying to figure out the best ways to enhance school safety.

“But,” the suit continues," it is the very serious possible repercussions of bringing firearms onto school grounds that make it so important that any resolution to arm staff must be done in accordance with the law, with thorough and researched policies, and with full transparency to the parents who send their children to school every day."

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