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Former principal files suit against Marshall Public Schools

Thomas alleges retaliation over rainbow flag; also alleges sexual harassment by board member

MARSHALL — The Marshall School Board collectively stands accused of discrimination and unlawful workplace retaliation, while a longtime board member faces sexual harassment allegations in a lawsuit filed Tuesday by a former middle school principal.

Filed in federal court late Tuesday afternoon, Mary Kay Thomas claimed in the lawsuit she was re-assigned from the principal position she held for more than a decade, and that she was the victim of an unwanted sexual advance by school board member and former principal Bill Swope.

The lawsuit claims the school district violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act, federal anti-discrimination laws, and the U.S. Constitution. The complaint alleges that MPS subjected Thomas to an employment investigation, removed her as middle school principal, and put her on a performance improvement plan.

The school district’s actions came after Thomas refused to take down the rainbow flag and showed support for a student gay-straight alliance, the complaint alleged. The school district’s actions also came after Thomas resisted sexual harassment from a school board member in 2019, the complaint alleged.

Thomas is seeking a jury trial, damages and reinstatement as middle school principal.

The school district has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, and court records Tuesday showed no hearings have been scheduled in the case yet.

MPS Superintendent Jeremy Williams said Tuesday that the school district denies any discriminatory conduct.

“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,” Williams said. “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 was placed on administrative leave in March. At the time, Williams said the move was due to an investigation being conducted by the school district. In July, Thomas was reassigned to a new administrative role as “coordinator of special projects” for the 2021-22 school year.

Both Thomas and the school district were sued this spring by a group of Marshall area residents who objected to the rainbow flag being displayed at the middle school. MPS settled the lawsuit in August, and as part of the settlement agreement, the flag display was taken down.

Thomas’s lawsuit, filed in federal court on Tuesday, names Marshall Public Schools and the MPS school board as defendants, as well as individual school board members Jeff Chapman and Bill Swope and Superintendent Jeremy Williams.

The lawsuit alleges Thomas faced pressure from community members, school board members and district administrators to take down the rainbow flag. The suit alleges the district also received complaints that Thomas was creating a “divisive” work environment by handing out rainbow stickers to school staff who supported LGBT students, and supporting a student gay-straight alliance group.

The lawsuit also alleged that in 2019 before the rainbow flag controversy, Thomas had resisted an attempt by school board member Bill Swope to kiss her neck. The lawsuit alleged Thomas told Williams about the sexual harassment.

In July 2021,Thomas received a notice of deficiency for reasons including creating a negative work environment and engaging in conduct unbecoming of a principal, the lawsuit alleges. The complaint said the alleged deficiencies were “false, distorted, and/or related to Thomas’s association with members of the LGBTQ community.”

Thomas was removed from her position as principal because of the alleged deficiencies, and placed on a year-long performance improvement plan, the complaint said. The rainbow flag lawsuit was settled without Thomas’s signature, the complaint said.

The complaint said Thomas has suffered economic losses, emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment as a result of the school district’s actions.

“Thomas’s case is important for many reasons,” said Matthew A. Frank, an attorney representing Thomas. “It is a reminder that public school employees do not give up their free-speech rights when they walk through the school-house door. More importantly, though, it stands for the humanity and dignity of LGBTQ students in Minnesota. They need public school administrators, teachers, and staff to stand by their side without fear of losing their livelihoods.”

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