Former principal sues Marshall school board for discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment

By: - December 3, 2021 7:52 am

Mary Kay Thomas says the Marshall school board retaliated against her as a middle school principal for her refusal to remove a LGBTQ pride flag from a display in the school cafeteria in 2020.

MARSHALL — A former middle school principal filed suit against the Marshall Public School District Board on Wednesday, accusing the board of discrimination and retaliation for her refusal to remove a LGBTQ pride flag from a display in the school cafeteria last year.

In her lawsuit, Mary Kay Thomas also accuses school board director Bill Swope of sexual harassment, claiming that he routinely called Thomas “sweetie,” remarked on her appearance, and said he wanted to kiss her neck. The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis alleges that at one point in their 15-year work relationship Swope kissed her against her will.

Swope is a founder of the Living Word Lutheran Church in Marshall, former principal of a Marshall elementary school, a retired teacher and former executive director of the Pride in the Tiger Foundation that raises money for local education. He did not return messages asking for comment.

District Superintendent Jeremy Williams, also named in the complaint, said in a statement, “Marshall Public Schools is committed to the education of every child and has strong policies and practices in place against discrimination, against both students and staff members. The school district is committed to creating a respectful, inclusive, and safe learning and working environment for students, staff, and our families.”

Marshall School Board Member Bill Swope.

Objections to Thomas’ work as principal began when she advocated for an inclusion project that included an LGBTQ pride flag hanging alongside flags representing students’ other cultural and national identities.

A group of Marshall clergy, parents and school staff calling themselves Marshall Concerned Citizens sued the school board last year, saying the pride flag violated Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex.

Marshall Evangelical Free Church Pastor Don LeClere led the group. He said in a statement last year that “students are being subjected to viewing the LGBTQ flag and being excluded as straight children.”

That lawsuit was settled in August with the school board agreeing to remove the rainbow flag from the cafeteria display.

But Thomas had already been replaced by an interim principal. Given the new title of Principal of Special Projects, she has been consigned to a closet-like space in the high school administration offices.

“They said they didn’t want me in proximity to others,” Thomas said in an interview.

“This was a newly formed position created especially for this situation,” she said. “From what I can tell, it’s never existed prior to this. They wanted to remove me from the middle school principalship, so they created it.”

The position includes summarizing a book titled “The Power of Positive Leadership,” writing a weekly report of her work activities and attending training on leadership and communication.

Before the flag controversy and Thomas’ removal, she had received only positive evaluations praising her work and calling her a model principal for her interactions with students and staff. She served as Marshall Middle School principal for 15 years, after 19 years as an educator in South Dakota, including seven years as a middle school principal there.

“The actions of (Marshall Concerned Citizens) are a motivating force, we think, for Marshall Public Schools to retaliate against Mary Kay,” said Matthew Frank, an attorney for Thomas.

“Framing the issue in terms of viewpoint neutrality from their side was a pretext for what was really going on here,” he said. “There was no animus directed at any other flag than the LGBTQ flag. They were pretending the issue was a commitment towards the purity of the First Amendment.”

A second attorney representing Thomas, David Schlesinger, said, “Really what this is about is whether a school administrator is allowed to recognize the history of discrimination and bias against a particular group.”

Thomas is firm in her position, despite its toll on her professional and personal life.

“This is what I’ve dedicated my life to for the last 35 years,” she said. “I have never been told that I wasn’t doing a superb job, so it’s a hardship emotionally and physically. It’s the most traumatic experience of my life … But I’m in this for the long haul.”

Residents of the southwest Minnesota town of 13,000 have spoken out in Thomas’ defense and praised the flag project.

“I worked with Mary Kay Thomas for 15 years,” said Lori Dyce, a former English language learning teacher at Marshall Public Schools and now a substitute teacher in the district.

“I highly respect her. Her decisions were based on what was good for students, family and staff,” Dyce said. “Putting flags up was a visual representation showing she supported students from other countries, students with special needs and students who might identify as LGBTQ. These flags showed students that they were accepted and welcome.”

Anne Veldhuisen, pastor of the Christ United Presbyterian Church in Marshall, said she was pleased to see the lawsuit.

“I’m very thankful that it’s happening,” she said. “The district seems to have done a pretty good job of trying to bully (Thomas) out. She’s a lot tougher than that. She’s taking a stand for people who wouldn’t be able to stand up themselves. She has the knowledge, the position, and the privilege to speak out when others can’t.”

Veldhuisen has two children attending Marshall schools and has considered running for a school board seat.

Marshall Public School District has not yet filed an official response to the suit.

“While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the Complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct,” Williams, the superintendent, said in his statement.  “The school will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”

School board members contacted by phone or email either said they had no comment or did not respond.

Read the complaint here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ruthe Thompson
Ruthe Thompson

Ruthe Thompson teaches a variety of classes in literature, writing and composition at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall.