CINCINNATI — Five friends and relatives of Madison students filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday accusing school leaders of illegally silencing them for speaking against a new policy arming teachers in the wake of a 2016 school shooting.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati accused the Madison Local School Board of a “concerted campaign designed to chill and silence” public criticism of a new policy that allows teachers and staff members to carry guns at schools.
A 14-year-old student took a gun out of his lunch box in February 2016, firing shots that injured four students in the cafeteria of Madison Jr./Sr. High School in Butler County. James “Austin” Hancock is serving time in juvenile detention for the shooting.
Two years later, in April 2018, the school board voted to allow trained and certified teachers and staff to carry weapons at school.
This lawsuit accuses the school board of taking drastic measures to silence critics who spoke against arming teachers at public meetings, violating their First Amendment right to free speech.
“The school board is intentionally weaponizing its vague rules and fabricating others to restrain critical speech and political rivals,” attorneys Matt Miller-Novak and Jennifer Kinsley, a constitutional law professor at Northern Kentucky University, wrote in the lawsuit.
Madison Superintendent Lisa Tuttle-Huff responded to the lawsuit on Thursday morning.
"These allegations are a gross mischaracterization and will be dealt with in court. There is nothing unlawful about the Madison Local School Board’s regulation of public participation at its meetings. The board fully complies with the Ohio Open Meetings Act, and throughout the process of deciding whether to authorize certain personnel to carry firearms on school property, the board has provided a forum for all viewpoints. It is unfortunate that a small number of individuals feel compelled to resort to litigation, but the board will defend decisions it believes to be in the best interest of the Madison community," Tuttle-Huff wrote in a statement to WCPO.
“It’s more important than ever that community members have the right to speak up and address grievances that they have against their local government agencies," said Billy Ison, who is a plaintiff and the grandparent of a student. “Somebody needs to stand up and say you cannot dominate or intimidate members of our community in order to put your pro-gun agenda in this school. It won’t be tolerated by some of us.”
Attorneys also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction asking a judge to ban the school board from limiting free speech at meetings.
Sandra Ison, who is a parent, claims that two armed deputies now stand on both sides of her when she speaks at school board meetings, according to the lawsuit.
“This causes her to feel afraid that she will be physically confronted or required to leave should she attempt to express her point of view during meetings,” the lawsuit states. “Sandra has never threatened anyone, she has no violent history, and this did not occur until plaintiffs began criticizing the school board’s pro-gun policies.”
Ison’s longtime boyfriend, James Cullen, is no longer allowed to speak at school board meetings because he lives in neighboring Clermont County and doesn’t live in the school district, according to the lawsuit.
“The school board is not letting him speak at all, even though he has a long-standing, parent-like relationship with Sandra’s son,” the lawsuit states. “The school board claims that any speaker must reside within the district and prove his residence by submission of a photo ID or tax records. But its own rules say nothing of the sort.”
Billy Ison claims he was physically removed from a meeting because the school board didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
Every time Billy Ison said the words “pro-gun agenda” at a meeting, the school board told him he could not say those words and threatened to remove him. He and his wife also got a letter from the school board threatening to permanently ban them from school property, according to the lawsuit.
“My grandson takes part in school plays. I want to see those school plays," Billy Ison said. "And when they start to deny me those types of basic rights, that’s a red line that I’m absolutely not going to tolerate.”
The lawsuit accuses the school board president David French of inviting friends over in order to photograph Billy Ison’s home and car license plate, and to threaten and harass his guests, according to the lawsuit.
“Mr. French has then conspired with his friends to place Billy’s private information on Facebook specifically to intimidate plaintiffs and chill their speech,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit accuses the school board of inventing new rules in order to quash speakers who don’t agree with their policies.
One new rule forces anyone who wants to speak at an upcoming school board meeting to deliver an in-person registration two days in advance of the meeting. This is unfair to parents who can’t take time off from work to deliver an in-person registration, according to the lawsuit.
“Sandra (Ison), like many other members of the public, has a job during the day time," according to the lawsuit. "She is unable to arrive in person during the school board’s regular business hours in order to register to speak, because to do so would require her to take off work and to potentially lose income."
When Sandra Ison and others asked Billy Ison to drop off their registrations so they could speak at a January 2019 meeting, the school board refused to let them speak because they had not dropped off their registrations in person, according to the lawsuit.
“I have never threatened anyone. As a matter of fact, after each board meeting, I try to go up to each board member and have a civil conversation with these people, and express to them that I appreciate the good things that they do and that’s sincere from the heart," Billy Ison said. "I do not appreciate their efforts to arm our teachers.”
Miller-Novak has filed several lawsuits against local governments in the past two years.
In 2017 he sued the Clermont County Commission on behalf of resident Chris Hicks. He accused a commissioner of abusing a civil protection order to silence a taxpayer from criticizing an elected official.
In July 2018 he sued the village of Amelia after a citizen was removed from a meeting in handcuffs and others were asked to leave when they attempted to express their views.
In September 2018 he filed suit on behalf of Rachel Richardson, accusing Milford City Council of holding secret, illegal meetings to advance the sale of property to FC Cincinnati and hiding details from public scrutiny.
Those cases are all pending.
This is not the first lawsuit filed by parents against the Madison school board.
A separate group of parents sued the school board in September 2018, challenging its decision to arm teachers. They are seeking an injunction to block the new rule until teachers and staff have completed the same training as security personnel in Ohio, which is 700-plus hours of peace officer training.
Butler County Court of Common Pleas Judge Charles Pater held a hearing on the issue on Monday. He hasn’t issued a ruling, but indicated he will side with the school district on the number of training hours required for armed staff, according to the Journal-News.
A statement the Journal-News received from the superintendent indicates the school board has authorized 10 people to carry guns in school, according to WHIO, which is a news partner.
“The policy is currently in effect,” Lisa Tuttle-Huff wrote. “And as the policy and the authorization letter make clear, simply because an individual is authorized to carry on school grounds doesn’t mean that they are required to do so — it is entirely a voluntary decision left to the individual.”
Tuttle-Huff did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WCPO.