Madison Schools wins federal court ruling on meeting policy challenge

The Madison School District armed staff policy sparked two lawsuits, one challenging the policy itself, the other involved a free speech challenge, a federal judge has found the district’s meeting policy is valid.

Madison schools grandfather Billy Ison and his family sued the schools in February 2019 in the U.S. District Court in Cincinnati. They claimed the school board violated their right to free expression and made it virtually impossible for them to speak their views about the concealed carry gun policy during school board meetings.

“The school board has engaged in a concerted campaign designed to chill and silence plaintiffs from further public criticism of its actions by imposing prior restraints on plaintiffs ability to participate in public meetings and by fabricating requirements as barriers to public participation that do not appear in the school board’s written rules,” the lawsuit read.

They asked District Court Judge Michael R. Barrett to issue a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the district from requiring in-person registration and enforcing a policy section that says the presiding officer may “interrupt, warn or terminate a participant’s statement when the statement is too lengthy, personally directed, abusive, off-topic, antagonistic, obscene or irrelevant.”

Barrett denied the TRO and dismissed the case entirely this week. He said the school board has the right to silence meeting attendees who are being disruptive and have them removed if deemed necessary. He also said the district’s policy that only lets residents of the district speak is also fine.

“With regard to the residency requirement, the court has previously concluded that plaintiffs do not have standing to challenge the policy’s residency requirement,” Barrett wrote. “While the court understands the concern when this requirement is applied to parents who live outside the district, the court also notes that Section A of the public participation policy allows anyone with a legitimate interest to participate in the public portion of the meeting.”

Ison’s attorney could not be reached for comment as to whether they will appeal.

Madison Superintendent Lisa Tuttle-Huff said the district is grateful for Barrett’s ruling.

“We are pleased that Judge Barrett ruled in the District’s favor,” she said. “The district always welcomes input from its students, residents, and taxpayers. Judge Barrett’s decision shows that the district’s policy allowing for public comment at its board meetings is constitutional.”

The other lawsuit against the district is now pending before the Ohio Supreme Court.

Erin Gabbard and a few other parents sued the district in September 2018 seeking an injunction blocking the district from arming teachers and other staff without the training required of law enforcement officials — 728 hours versus the 26 hours the school has in its policy — and a court order requiring disclosure of policies and procedures for arming staff. The policy was instituted after a 2016 shooting at the Junior/Senior High School.

The parents appealed Butler County Common Pleas Judge Charles Pater’s decision against them to the 12th District Court of Appeals a year ago.

Pater ruled teachers and other staff are not peace officers and therefore do not require police levels of training. The appeals court disagreed and ordered the school district to stop arming teachers without much more involved training. The high court lifted the ban on Aug. 4 allowing staff to carry weapons while the case is pending.

Simultaneously Ohio Sen. Bill Coley introduced legislation that would render the 12th District decision moot. The bill passed out of the Government Oversight and Reform committee last month by a 6 to 3 vote, after scores of people testified against it, including Gabbard.

“Do we really expect a teacher with as little as zero hours of training to be able to use their weapon in a way that doesn’t harm the students it proclaims to protect, as they run for their lives in and out of sightlines,” part of her testimony reads. “If our staff members had been armed in 2016, how much more blood would’ve been shed because of lack of training?”

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