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Suit over Albemarle schools' diversity training to proceed

A brick school building with the words "AGNOR-HURT" above the entrance
Courtesy
/
Albemarle County Public Schools
Agnor-Hurt Elementary School in Charlottesville

Two of three claims were dismissed by a federal judge.

A federal judge ruled this week that a former Albemarle County Public Schools assistant principal can move forward with a lawsuit against the school division, which she accuses of creating a “racially hostile” environment with its teacher diversity training. But U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon dismissed some of the former administrator’s claims.

Emily Mais, who worked at Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, said the required training “directed teachers to be racist by viewing each other and their students based solely on race and then treating each other differently according to the color of their skin.”

Mais alleges that after speaking up about her concerns and "mistakenly" referring to people of color as “colored people,” district officials allowed staff to harass and intimidate her until a forced resignation in September 2021.

At the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, Moon granted the School Board’s motion to dismiss parts of Mais' case based on Virginia’s sovereign immunity doctrine — which bars government entities and employees from being sued.

However, Moon wrote in the Feb. 21 opinion that he’ll let the case go forward on her employment discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “considering the alleged repeated race-based comments, the School Board’s lack of intervention, and [Mais’] emotional and mental distress, [Mais] has alleged a plausible racial hostile work environment claim under Title VII.”

Mais also filed claims alleging the district violated her right to free speech as well as rights guaranteed by the Virginia Human Rights Act and wrongfully discharged her. Moon dismissed those claims, ruling the district was protected by sovereign immunity.

Mais’ lawsuit is backed by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom.

“The training sets up a classic Catch-22,” said Hal Frampton, an attorney with Alliance for Defending Freedom, in a press release. “It encourages all staff members to ‘speak their truth,’ but when a white person like Emily raises concerns about the divisive content, she is deemed a racist in need of further ‘anti-racism’ instruction.”

In February 2019, the Albemarle County School Board adopted an Anti-Racism Policy. In November 2020, the school district launched a mandatory virtual orientation about the policy for all staff. And in March 2021, Mais attended a mandatory division-wide professional development webinar session based on author Glenn Singleton’s book “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools.” 

Phil Giaramita, an Albemarle Public Schools spokesperson, said the school district is prepared to defend its policies as the case moves forward.

“The kinds of things that were discussed or alleged in the lawsuit — that’s not what the policy of the division is,” Giaramita said. “That’s not the intent of how we’re working together to benefit students. And so, it comes down to a matter of can the claims alleged in the suit be proven or not, and we’ll find that out.”

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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