A former middle school principal has filed a lawsuit against a Minnesota public school district, alleging she was fired for refusing to remove an LGBTQ Pride flag from the school cafeteria last year.
Mary Kay Thomas, who served as the principal of Marshall Middle School in Marshall, Minnesota, from 2006 to 2021, claims that she received positive evaluations throughout that time and received praise from students, staff, and district officials for her work. But things changed after she put up a number of flags in the cafeteria to represent marginalized communities, including people with disabilities, international students, Native American students, and a Pride flag, to represent LGBTQ students.
Thomas then began hearing that some teachers and staff were complaining about the Pride flag, with one teacher, claiming to speak on behalf of others, arguing that “homosexuality is not a nationality,” that kids were making fun of the flag, that teachers were unprepared on how to deal with students’ questions about the Pride flag, and that parents should determine when and whether to introduce their children to the concept of homosexuality. Thomas rejected that teacher’s request to remove the Pride flag.
Other teachers then complained to the superintendent about the Pride flag, and at least one student started a petition asking that it be removed. A group of Marshall clergy, parents, and school staff — many of whom had ties to the conservative churches — known as the Marshall Concerned Citizens pushed to have the flag removed from the cafeteria, claiming that displaying the Pride flag was discriminating against heterosexual students and needlessly exposing them to a controversial issue by promoting a certain “lifestyle.”
Several teachers at Marshall Middle School subsequently complained to the superintendent, claiming that by keeping the Pride flag in the display, Thomas was creating a “divisive work environment,” and objecting to the creation (by another teacher) of a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school. Superintendent Jeremy Williams — who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit — then asked Thomas to resign or agree to be reassigned. After she refused, he placed her on involuntary administrative leave pending an “investigation” into the teachers’ complaints.
Thomas filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and cross-filed it with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
At the same time, the Marshall Concerned Citizens filed a lawsuit agains the school district and Thomas, in her official capacity as principal, alleging that by hanging the Pride flag in the cafeteria, the school district was violating Title IX and discriminating against straight students on the basis of sex. That lawsuit was eventually settled in August when the school board agreed to remove the Pride flag from the cafeteria display.
Meanwhile, Williams replaced Thomas with an interim principal, and designated her “Principal of Special Projects,” consigning her to a closet-like space in the high school administration offices, and requiring her to provide summaries of her weekly and monthly actions to “work on her management and communication style,” complete additional leadership trainings, and write summaries about a book titled The Power of Positive Leadership, actions that Thomas and her lawyers claim were taken to force her to quit and leave the school system.
“This was a newly formed position created especially for this situation,” Thomas told the Minnesota Reformer in an interview. “From what I can tell, it’s never existed prior to this. They wanted to remove me from the middle school principalship, so they created it.”
In her lawsuit, Thomas claims that the Marshall School Board, Williams, School Board Chair Jeff Chapman, and School Board Member Bill Swope retaliated against her for associating with members of the LGBTQ community; discriminated against her in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which, taken together, prohibit sex-based discrimination in employment and in educational settings; and unlawfully retaliated against her, in violation of Title IX and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution protecting her right to free speech, freedom of association, and freedom of expression.
Thomas has also claimed the district and officials retaliated against her after she complained of being subjected to sexual harassment by a school board member who kissed her against her will.
Thomas’s lawyers argue that the school district used the objections of the Marshall Concerned Citizens and other social conservatives over the Pride flag controversy to retaliate against their client.
“Framing the issue in terms of viewpoint neutrality from their side was a pretext for what was really going on here,” Matthew Frank, one of Thomas’s attorneys, told the Reformer. “There was no animus directed at any other flag than the LGBTQ flag. They were pretending the issue was a commitment towards the purity of the First Amendment.”
“Really what this is about is whether a school administrator is allowed to recognize the history of discrimination and bias against a particular group,” David Schlesinger, who is also part of Thomas’s legal team, added.
The Marshall Public School District has not yet filed an official response to Thomas’s lawsuit.
Williams issued a statement in response, saying: “Marshall Public Schools is committed to the education of every child and has strong policies and practices in place against discrimination, against both students and staff members. The school district is committed to creating a respectful, inclusive, and safe learning and working environment for students, staff, and our families.”
He also told the Reformer: “While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the Complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct. The school will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”
Thomas says she, too will continue fighting, despite the toll the controversy has had on her professional and personal life, including the loss of income, loss of reputation, emotional distress, embarrassment, and humiliation to which she was subjected.
“This is what I’ve dedicated my life to for the last 35 years,” she said. “I have never been told that I wasn’t doing a superb job, so it’s a hardship emotionally and physically. It’s the most traumatic experience of my life … But I’m in this for the long haul.”
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