Friday, January 13, 2017

Millions of reasons why Joplin R-8 backed down, canceled NMS prayer club

The Joplin R-8 School District is receiving nationwide attention, particularly among Christian media, for its recent decision to put an end to a pre-school prayer group at North Middle School.

The move came after a threatened lawsuit by the American Humanist Association, the same group that currently is suing the district over a 2015 North Middle School field trip to Victory Ministries and Sports Complex.

The decision by district officials came as a result of a policy put into place in March that limits this type of student-generated activity to grades 9-12.

Naturally, the R-8 Board has come under fire from people in this district, and because of the publicity, people nationwide, who want the board and administration to stand up for principle and "fight the good fight."

Even if the board had been inclined to do so, there are millions of reasons why the board could not do so- the best one being that it has to remain a good steward of taxpayer funds.

There is no doubt that the American Humanist Association will take the district to court. It has already done so and that case continues to advance in federal court. It is also much more difficult at the middle school level for a student-generated activity to function without adult supervision.

Perhaps there would have been a time when the district could have taken a flyer in fighting this through the court system.

To do so now would not be wise.

Consider that  two months ago, the district paid $2.5 million to settle a lawsuit with the P1 Group, the electrical contractor that worked on the high school. In addition to that $2.5 million, taxpayers had to pay more than $1 million to its lawyers at Polsinelli, P. C. and $50,000 to former Superintendent C. J. Huff to consult since it was his efforts to make sure the high school opened on time in August 2014 that drove up the project's costs by millions.

The P1 lawsuit is not the only one that the district has had to deal with in the past few years. All school districts are subject to lawsuits from contractors, former employees, people like the American Humanist Association, and anyone who can see a lucrative payday from suing the government, but Joplin was sued more times than the Webb City, Carthage, Carl Junction, and Neosho school districts combined during the seven years Huff was in charge.

Most of those cases ended with a settlement being paid to those who were suing the district, including a sexual harassment lawsuit against former buildings project director Mike Johnson, a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by Johnson brought by a former contractor, and another lawsuit alleging retaliation by Huff against a union leader.

Two of the Huff-era lawsuits, including the American Humanist Association action over the Victory Ministries trip and another sexual harassment/wrongful dismissal case, are still in the courts, and the district continues to pay lawyers to handle these cases.

Actions taken by Huff prior to the Victory Ministries lawsuit may have played a role in the decision to retreat from this battle. While it is possible to make a convincing argument that the trip was not religious in nature, the minute the original permission slip was sent out allowing Victory Ministires personnel to prosletyze the students (instead of using a district-generated permission slip, North officials took the easy way out and just used Victory's), the district did not have a leg to stand on.

In an exchange of e-mails with a lawyer for the American Humanist Association, Huff ignored the threat of a lawsuit and said the district would have to do better in coming years. At the time Huff learned about the flawed permission slips, he still had time to make sure North students could find an alternative field trip destination.

Instead, he did nothing.

This recent history of lawsuits was not explored by the Joplin Globe in its coverage of the prayer group controversy, with the exception, of course of the Victory Ministries lawsuit.

While that possible reasoning for the district closing the North Middle School prayer group and other similar groups in R-8 middle schools, will come nowhere near to satisfying those who find it so easy to complain about government spending, but then insist that hundreds of thousands be spent to fight a fight that coincides with their beliefs, it does offer evidence that the cavalier attitude toward inviting legal action that characterized the Huff years is a thing of the past.

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