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Missouri’s attorney general files 9 more anti-mask lawsuits against school districts

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, photographed during a November press conference in St. Louis, filed lawsuits against multiple school districts across the state on Friday.
Brian Munoz
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, shown during a November press conference in St. Louis, has now sued 45 school districts over COVID-19 policies.

Updated Jan. 24 with additional lawsuits and reaction from school districts. 

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt on Monday filed nine additional lawsuits against school districts over their mask mandates.

In total, he has sued 45 districts, including 28 in the St. Louis region, in recent days over mandates and other COVID-19 mitigation policies.

On Monday, some districts said they were consulting with their attorneys. Others said they still had not officially received lawsuits but would discuss with counsel when they do.

A few districts have released statements condemning the lawsuits. Both the Francis Howell and the St. Charles districts said the cases are a waste of taxpayer dollars.

“The lawsuit filed by Schmitt is a waste of taxpayer money – on both sides,” the Francis Howell School District wrote in a statement. “The claims are tenuous at best and this unnecessary lawsuit represents another attack on public education in Missouri. This latest action by AG Schmitt is disheartening, unfounded and frankly, shameful.”

Maplewood Richmond Heights Superintendent Bonita E. Jamison said the lawsuit is not a prudent use of taxpayer money or human resources required to address it.

“We believe these lawsuits continue to be a distraction to school leaders regionally who are already taxed with efforts to keep school doors open and students safe,” Jamison said in a statement.

The nine additional districts sued are:

  •  Bayless
  •  Jennings
  •  Lexington
  •  Kirkwood
  •  Ritenour
  •  Hancock Place
  •  Special School District of St. Louis County
  •  Meramec Valley
  •  University City

Original story from Jan. 21:

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed lawsuits on Friday against more than 35 school districts he said were illegally instating health policies.

Schmitt tweeted links to suits filed against the school districts, including Francis Howell, St. Louis Public Schools, Columbia Public, Kansas City, Rockwood and Fort Zumwalt.

The suits allege that school districts do not have the authority to impose public health orders for children. Several parents within the districts are named as plaintiffs in the suits that were filed in the counties where the school districts are located.

The lawsuits are part of Schmitt’s ongoing effort to force Missouri schools to drop mask mandates and other COVID-19 mitigation policies. Schmitt is a Republican running for U.S. Senate.

“Parents and families, not bureaucrats, should have the power to decide what’s best for their children," Schmitt said in a press release Friday.

In a letter to school districts last month, Schmitt told the districts to cease enforcement of public health orders that he said were declared void by a recent court ruling.

In November a Cole County judge ruled that health orders passed by an “unelected official” were unconstitutional and a violation of Missouri’s separation of powers.

“Missouri statutes give elected legislative bodies, not individual health agency directors, authority to create county-wide laws related to communicable disease,” Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel R. Green wrote.

Schmitt’s office says it sent letters to more than 50 school districts in December, more than 20 of which are in the St. Louis area, telling them to cease and desist “illegal” mask, quarantine and other public health policies.

The majority of local school districts still have mask mandates in place and believe their policies are legal, according to statements and letters sent to parents.

The districts believe their power to enact health policies is spelled out in two Missouri statutes, said Paul Ziegler, CEO of EdPlus, a cooperative of about 60 public school and charter school systems.

Ziegler pointed to Missouri statute 167.191, which says it is unlawful for children to attend school with an infectious disease they may spread and revised statute 171.011, which gives school boards the ability to adopt rules and regulations.

“Between those two statutes, to me, it's very clear that school boards not only have the ability but have the obligation to do the things they're doing right now to try and keep kids safe,” Ziegler said.

The districts also believe their power to enact health policies is reinforced by the fact that in most cases, elected school boards voted to approve the policies. The Cole County ruling presented the argument that unelected officials have limited authority, said Duane Martin, an attorney at EdCounsel, which represents public school districts across Missouri, including Francis Howell, Holden R-III, Jefferson City, Independence and Kingsville, which were sued by the Attorney General on Friday.

“By putting it before the people who are elected by the local community to make these very decisions, I think it just bolsters their ability to make these kinds of determinations in the best interest of their kids,” Martin said.

Health implications

The lawsuits come during a wave of COVID-19 infections that was three times higher than previous waves at its peak and has filled local hospitals.

It has put a strain on school districts that are struggling to staff classrooms amid a big increase in educators who are out sick.

Rob Gatter, a professor of law at St. Louis University School of Law at the Center for Health Law Studies, said the lawsuits are creating confusion and sending a dangerous message at a concerning point in the pandemic.

“[Hospitals] barely have the beds and they barely really have the nurses and the Missouri Attorney General, Eric Schmitt, is adding to the problem by creating confusion about what's legal and what's illegal,” Gatter said.

The lawsuits will take time and resources from school districts, Ziegler said.

“It's not only a distraction for school leaders to have to deal with it, to have to prepare themselves for potential litigation or deal with litigation if a suit is actually filed,” Ziegler said. “Those leaders would be much better served working with their communities to make sure they're keeping kids safe and keeping our school doors open.”

And Martin points out, “taxpayers are paying both sides of this.”

School districts the Attorney General filed suit against:

  •  Francis Howell 
  •  Park Hill
  •  Columbia Public
  •  Fort Zumwalt 
  •  Lee’s Summit
  •  Holden
  •  Affton
  •  Liberty
  •  St. Charles
  •  Kansas City Missouri
  •  Dunklin R-5
  •  St. Louis Public Schools
  •  North Kansas City Public 
  •  Waynesville
  •  Brentwood
  •  Jefferson City
  •  Rockwood 
  •  Raytown
  •  Clayton
  •  Ladue
  •  Independence
  •  Mehlville
  •  Kingsville 
  •  Parkway 
  •  Valley Park
  •  Center
  •  Fox
  •  Pattonville 
  •  Warrensburg
  •  Webster Groves
  • Hickman Mills
  •  Maplewood Richmond Heights
  •  Ferguson-Florissant
  •  Hazelwood 
  •  Lindbergh
  • Grandview

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

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