Howard County parent files discrimination suit against school board

The Howard County Board of Education is being sued for racial discrimination by a Columbia resident who says she was banned from her son's school and thrown out of his football game after circulating a flier claiming he was mistreated over cheating allegations.

Elaine Brunson of Columbia also says in the suit that she was terminated from her job at a bus company contracted by the school system because a principal requested that she be removed over the matter.

Brunson, whose son attends Atholton High School, filed suit in Howard County Circuit Court on Oct. 22, but the case has been moved to U.S. District Court because of First Amendment implications. She is seeking $200,000 in punitive damages and $500,000 for emotional distress, plus attorney's fees and lost wages.

Her attorney, Michael Coyle, said he has filed a motion for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the school board from excluding Brunson from school property and then will seek a preliminary injunction.

A hearing has been scheduled in two weeks.

Among those specifically named in the lawsuit are Howard County schools Superintendent Sydney Cousin and Atholton High School Principal Jennifer Clements.

According to the suit, Clements had requested that Brunson be removed from the football game Sept. 10, citing a denial-of-access notice that had been issued to Brunson in December that prohibited her from being on school grounds for a year. When Brunson refused to leave, Clements called police, who escorted Brunson off the property, the suit says.

Brunson was charged with trespass on school grounds and disturbing school operations.

"The letter that the notice came with had the bald, unsupported allegation that her distribution of these pamphlets was disturbing the operations of the school," said Coyle.

Howard schools spokesman Patti Caplan said the board would not comment on the lawsuit, adding that it is in the hands of school attorneys. Clements did not return a message asking for comment Friday.

Leslie Robert Stellman, an attorney representing Howard school officials in the case, said, "We just received the complaint earlier this week, and I am going to sit down with my client next week and review the facts. Until that time, I really can't say anything about the merits of the complaint."

According to the lawsuit, Brunson, who is African-American, says that she has had "several disputes with school administrators at Atholton High School related to the differential treatment of her son, Ashton, relative to White students at the school."

The incident that led to the denial-of-access notice occurred about Sept. 18 of last year, when Brunson's son was accused of cheating on a Spanish exam.

Coyle said that the teacher who made the accusation did not come forward with proof that he was cheating. "In our opinion it was based on a set of circumstances," said Coyle. "Basically, a number of kids were talking after an exam, and for some reason this teacher focused in on her child and this other child.

"Mrs. Brunson's feeling is that these two children were focused on because of their race," he said, adding that the other student was also African-American.

According to the lawsuit, Brunson attempted to resolve the incident and other issues through the Board of Education and school administrators "but was never given a satisfactory response."

The lawsuit said that in December, Brunson circulated pamphlets in neighborhoods surrounding Atholton High complaining about treatment she and her son had received from Atholton and board administrators, accusing the officials of being "bullies" and discriminating against her son.

On Dec. 8, Linda Wise, the Board of Education's chief academic officer, issued the denial-of-access notice, the lawsuit says. Attempts to reach Wise, who is named as a defendant, were unsuccessful Friday.

"The school telling her that she cannot be on school property because of the exercise of her First Amendment rights was impermissible," said Coyle. "The school is a state actor, and just like the police or any other state entity, they're not allowed to infringe upon your constitutionally protected rights. When the school says, 'You distributed this pamphlet, you cannot come on school property,' that in and of itself is a violation of her First Amendment rights."

The lawsuit also states that about two months earlier, Brunson was terminated from her position as a bus driver with Tip Top Transportation, which the suit says serves the county school system. Brunson was terminated because Deep Run Elementary School Principal Cynthia Hankin, who is also named as a defendant, did not want her on the school's premises or working a route involving Deep Run, according to the suit. The suit says that "these actions by defendant Hankin were in retaliation for the pamphlets distributed by Ms. Brunson."

Attempts to reach Hankin on Friday were unsuccessful.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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