Federal judge lifts parent's ban from school property pending lawsuit

Mar. 6—ASHLAND — A parent of an autistic student has filed a lawsuit against Rowan County's Board of Education. In the lawsuit, he claims that he was barred from school property after expressing criticism during a school board meeting.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge David L. Bunning ordered Rowan County schools to permit the parent on district premises pending further litigation.

Bunning's order comes after a proposed agreement between the parent and the school's attorneys, per court records, but the father's complaint still requests punitive damages against the board and Superintendent Michael Rowe for allegedly punishing and intimidating the father, John Elliott, for "peacefully" advocating for his child.

Per the complaint, filed Feb. 26, the parent, a former principal himself, filed "multiple administrative complaints" related to the district "not providing services in proper compliance" with his child's individualized services, as required by federal education laws related to special education.

In November 2023, the plaintiff said he spoke with teachers and counselors during an open house about his child's mental health, bullying and supposedly agreed upon behavior intervention services, according to court documents.

Following the open house, which, according to the complaint, consisted only of a "peaceful" exchange, the plaintiff attempted to pick up his child from the middle school for a doctor's appointment but was met by a school resource officer in a "confrontational manner."

The plaintiff alleges the exchange with the SRO was a result of his "critical viewpoints" and, as a result, the SRO was "specifically set out to intimidate" the parent during the attempted pick-up.

In the exchange with the officer, the complaint further alleges the SRO told the parent to leave the school, escorted the parent to the parking lot and "continued (to) abuse" the parent.

Of the alleged "abuse" from the SRO, the father accuses the SRO of telling him his child was not autistic and that the father was "the cause of his child's issues."

According to court records, the officer allegedly admitted the exchange "crossed the line" and "was unprofessional" in a later recorded statement.

After filing a Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act complaint regarding the SRO incident and a request for a disability accommodations meeting, which garnered no responses, per the complaint.

"Whether defendants agree with anything (the plaintiff) has to say, (the plaintiff) has never physically threatened any school employee or acted in any obscene manner," the complaint reads.

Following the alleged lack of response from the district, the plaintiff requested to speak at a board meeting in late January during which he "peacefully stated his grievances with the defendants and (SRO)," however, the complaint states the parent was interrupted and was told he had exceeded the board's two-minute time limit, which the plaintiff alleges was not in accordance with the board's rules on public participation.

According to the board's public participation procedures, as reflected in Kentucky School Board Association's list of board policy, the board chairperson "may impose conditions upon attendance at a given meeting ... for the maintenance of order," and that the chairman can rule on the relevance to the board's agenda.

"The chairman may also establish time limits for speakers as may be required to maintain order and to ensure the expedient conduct of the board's business," the school's policy states, according to online publications, that was adopted in 2022.

The complaint states the parent argued against the time limit but "wrapped up his critical comments" after "some debate" with the school's attorney.

Although the complaint implies potential contention, the document reads the plaintiff was not asked to leave the meeting and "(the plaintiff) did not interrupt the meeting."

The instances of the board allegedly silencing and school personnel intimidations eventually led to an email from Superintendent Michael Rowe. The email, according to case exhibits, consisted of Rowe informing the parent "You are not to be present on any property owned by the Rowan County Board of Education. If you enter on to [sic] any property owned by (RCBoE), except for a meeting scheduled by the superintendent, trespassing charges will be filed."

That email from Rowe, sent on Feb. 18, was in response to the plaintiff's request to be added to the board's agenda for an allotted time to voice grievances, which was ultimately denied.

Additional documents filed on the behalf of the plaintiff state: "Rowe did not only deny Elliott's request to challenge his ban, but he also threatened to arrest (the plaintiff) for even attempting to appeal his indefinite ban ..."

The subsequent lawsuit filings argues banning a citizen from public meetings (or school grounds) not only blocks the plaintiff from obtaining information related to his child but causes a "loss of First Amendment freedoms," thus causing "irreparable injury."

The plaintiff argues the board and administrative decisions toward him for speaking critically "are chilling the public's faith that it may criticize the defendants without suffering a complete ban from attending board meetings."

Following a comment inquiry from The Daily Independent, Rowe said he could not comment on pending litigation.

Plaintiff attorneys requested the court negate the ban pending litigation, which court documents reflect school council agreed to.

Bunning also ordered school council to provide an answer to the complaint by March 25.

(606) 326-2652 — mjepling@dailyindependent.com