Students Who Launched 'Joke' Petition to Restart Slavery Sue for Civil Rights Violations

Four students who were disciplined after a "joke" petition looking to restart slavery was shared on social media are suing the Kansas City school district for civil rights violations.

The lawsuit, filed Friday, stated the students from Park Hill South High School said the posting in September began as a joke between a biracial student and a black student.

After other students laughed at the petition, it was posted on social media, where it garnered national media coverage.

The biracial student was expelled and three other students who commented on the petition were suspended for 180 days, according to the Associated Press. All of the students are in the ninth grade and members of the school's football team.

The school district, its principal, the members of the Park Hill School District Board of Education, the district's superintendent and the district's director of student services are all being sued by the students.

The lawsuit said officials violated the students' First Amendment, due process, and equal protection rights. They want to be reinstated and to have the incident expunged from their school records, along with unnamed actual and punitive damages.

"Fourteen-year-olds sometimes unwisely shoot their mouths off, instantly regretting it but causing no harm, no disruption," Arthur Benson II, who represents the students, said. "But here it was adults who unwisely overreacted, causing the disruptions and they are now trying to strip these boys of their entire ninth grades."

The lawsuit said the district's attempts to improve equity and equal treatment with the growing Black and Hispanic population in recent years made it hard for ninth graders to control themselves "between the pulls of a peer culture that valued racialized bantering and the adult expectations of a school code that prohibited most forms of racial or ethnic descriptions and banter punishable offenses."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Kansas City, Civil Rights, Lawsuit, Petition
Four students who launched a "joke" petition to restart slavery are suing the Kansas City school district for civil rights violations. Above, students prepare to leave on school buses from Westport High School on March 11, 2010, in Kansas City, Missouri. G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images

Nicole Kirby, a spokeswoman for the Park Hill School District, said the district acted appropriately when it took "prompt, decisive action to enforce our policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and uncivil behavior."

Kirby said the district would share more details when it responds to the lawsuit in court.

The lawsuit said uproar began when the football team was on a bus en route to a game on September 16.

One of the students, who is Black and Brazilian, was joking with the Black student and typed a "petition" on the website Change.org that said "Start slavery again," according to the lawsuit.

Other students encouraged the student to post it on social media. When the team returned after the game, 11 people had "liked" the petition and others had shared it.

Two of the other three students who commented on the petition were white and the other is white and Asian, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the petition caused no disruption at the school and was not intended to be taken literally.

After a parent complained about the posting the next day, the students were interviewed and admitted they participated in the petition but thought it was a joke.

The principal, Kerrie Herren, then sent an email to families of the school's students telling them he had just learned of "some unacceptable and racist statements that some students posted online."

News outlets, including The Associated Press, reported on the issue, prompting Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd to notify the entire school district community about the "unacceptable and racist statements," which prompted more news stories.

After a hearing before the school board, the biracial student was expelled and the other three students were suspended. The Black student was not punished.