The letter -- signed by 49 parents of children attending Lucille Brown Middle School -- was sent to members of the City of Richmond School Board, interim Supt. Jonathan Lewis and a copy was provided to me after I heard about it from several sources. I wrote about the letter and the parental frustrations it revealed for Style Weekly, which also posted the parent letter online.
Speaking as a parent of children who attended Lucille Brown and as an individual member of the Richmond School Board, 2nd-District member Kimberly Gray described the Virginia Supreme Court's latest refusal to rehear the appeal as a "vindication for the Richmond parents and a victory for all parents across the Commonwealth."
Long a champion of transparency, greater accountability and parental empowerment, Gray described the parents who were sued as "personal heroes."
"You can't tell parents that you want more involvement from them at their children's schools and then totally disregard their questions and concerns. These parents have literally been through hell these past few months and have every right to be frustrated."
She added that she hopes citizens understand that the circumstances described in this letter stem from the administration of former RPS Supt. Yvonne Brandon --
and not from that of the current Superintendent Dana Bedden.
To be sure, this situation was at least three years in the making and was among the many messes on Bedden's desk when he was hired in December 2013, several months after the School Board parted ways with Brandon and key members of her administration.
The lawsuit was filed in February 2014, dismissed in August 2014 by Richmond Circuit Judge T.J. Markow.
Denise R. Lewis, the principal of Lucille M. Brown Middle School when the letter was written and her attorneys contended that four parents of students at the school conspired to “purposefully and without lawful justification maliciously injure the plaintiff in her profession and reputation.”
Lewis petitioned for an appeal of the Circuit Court’s decision to dismiss the suit, but the state Supreme Court upheld the dismissal and denied the petition for appeal. The Justices at the Virginia Supreme Court upheld Judge Markow's decision to dismiss the case. Twice.
Many heartfelt thanks to parents Yvette and Anthony Conte and to Wendy and Todd Martin for the suffering they endured.
The following is the full text of a statement that was provided by Wendy and Todd Martin, two of the four parents who were sued by attorneys representing former principal Denise Lewis:
"Todd and I believe that the greatest investment you can make in public education is to invest your child in a public school and to invest your time in helping to make that school a quality environment.
We are thankful for the judicial wisdom that guided decisions by both the Richmond Circuit Court and the Virginia Supreme Court.
We are deeply grateful for the outstanding defense provided to us by our attorneys, Jayne Pemberton, Michael Matheson and Mark Colombell of Thompson McMullan, P.C.
We are humbled to have had two of this city’s finest citizens as our co-defendants , and we are very appreciative for their eloquent attorneys.
Finally, we are thankful for our dear friends and family members whose support, encouragement and even outrage, helped to soothe us and raise our spirits throughout this ordeal.
Lawsuit sets a dangerous precedent
After this lawsuit became public, the late Dr. Bill Bosher, Distinguished Professor of Public Policy and Education at Virginia Commonwealth University spoke to the media, saying, “The truth is we [public school educators] are public servants. Therefore, the public has the opportunity to critique when we're doing well and when they think we're not… The thing that most influences student achievement is parents being involved with their young people and when you want that to happen this [lawsuit] certainly could mute the enthusiasm."
We agree with Dr. Bosher. Furthermore, it’s our opinion that this lawsuit was a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) that highlights the need for anti-SLAPP legislation in Virginia and at the federal level.
The need for anti-SLAPP legislation
A New York Supreme Court judge once said of SLAPPs, “Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can scarcely be imagined.”
According to the Public Participation Project, 28 states – as politically diverse as California and Texas – have enacted anti-SLAPP legislation. Virginia is not among them. The Civil Liberties Defense Center explains that, “Not all of these laws are alike, but many of these anti-SLAPP laws offer defendants the opportunity to recoup their legal fees if they prove that they have been forced to defend themselves from a frivolous lawsuit.”
At least four judges – three of them Virginia Supreme Court judges – dismissed this case. Drew Gallalle, lawyer for our co-defendants, said “that means it never should have been filed” by Thomas R. Roberts & Associates, P.C. I’m told this lawsuit cost our insurance company tens of thousands of dollars. We presume our co-defendants bore similar costs. Of course, all insureds bear the cost for SLAPPs like this in the form of higher premiums.
It’s been a difficult 16 months. The dismissal of the lawsuit against us is cause for relief, but not celebration. We sincerely hope that this outcome emboldens more parents and school faculty to stand up and speak out for school improvement.
What happened to us should not happen to others. Now that this lawsuit is behind us, we will actively seek the help and resources of individuals and organizations that can support us in an effort to enact anti-SLAPP legislation in the Commonwealth."