Federal lawsuit against schools charges First Amendment rights violations

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A lawsuit has been filed against the Switzerland County School Corporation and superintendent Tracy Caddell in United States District Court by a teacher in the system.

Susan Jill Cord, who is currently teaching English at Switzerland County Middle School, brought the action against the school corporation and Superintendent Caddell claiming that her First Amendment right guaranteeing free speech was violated.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in New Albany on August 1st. Tracy Caddell is named in the suit both in his official capacity as superintendent and as an individual.

The documentation for the lawsuit, which was obtained by Vevay Newspapers through the Freedom of Information Act and Indiana’s Open Door/Access to Public Records law, contends that Jill Cord’s rights of free speech as an individual were violated and that as a result of that violation, her professional career suffered.

She is being represented in the lawsuit by the Indianapolis law firm of Dann Pecar Newman and Kleiman, through attorneys Eric M. Hylton and James B. Chapmann II.

In the court documents, Susan Jill Cord states that on May 2nd, 2006, she and her husband, William Cord, held a meeting with Superintendent Caddell and Candis Haskell, who was at that time the principal of Switzerland County Middle School. The meeting was held in the superintendent’s office.

The document states that Susan Jill Cord and William Cord scheduled the meeting to discuss with the superintendent “community issues of public concern including, but not necessarily limited to, the School’s high school drop-outs, the School’s counseling services, the School’s failure to properly use $5 million in grant money for technology as was the purpose of the grant, the School’s lack of or deficiencies in special education and homebound education services, and discipline in the School.”

The documents say that after approximately 20 minutes, Tracy Caddell, “abruptly ended the meeting and instructed Cord and her husband to leave his office and the School’s property.”

The lawsuit says that when Susan Jill Cord and William Cord did not immediately leave and attempted to schedule another meeting with the superintendent, Tracy Caddell called the police. The Cords then voluntarily left the school grounds once law enforcement officers arrived.

The documents state that prior to the May 2nd, 2006 meeting, Susan Jill Cord’s employment evaluations from the School, “…Had been generally positive and favorable.”

The court papers state that on May 3rd, 2006, Superintendent Caddell notified Susan Jill Cord that she was being suspended for insubordination; and on May 22nd, 2006, the superintendent, “…Instructed Cord to come to his office where he advised Cord that her teacher’s contract was in jeopardy.”

The documents state that the superintendent then placed “many directives” on Susan Jill Cord, “…Which she was required to follow and with which she was forced to comply under threat of dismissal. Many of these directives were onerous and inconsistent with one another and also with the directives which Cord had been given by the School in 1999 which were re-imposed and made a part of the directives given to her by Caddell in May, 2006.”

The documents state that around May 16th of 2007, Susan Jill Cord received a recommendation from Candis Haskell, now the high school principal, that her teaching contract be terminated; and that the recommendation included, “…Unfavorable and unsatisfactory comments regarding Cord’s performance. This recommendation became a part of Cord’s personnel file.”

The lawsuit maintains that when Susan Jill Cord went to the meeting with the superintendent, she had the right to speak as a citizen of the United States on matters of public concern, and that right to free speech is guaranteed under the First Amendment.

It says that her speaking as an individual and a citizen, “…Did not interfere with and were not inconsistent with the School’s interests in fulfilling its mission entrusted to it by laws. The statements made by Cord and her husband to Caddell and Haskell at the meeting on May 2nd, 2006, as described in the above paragraphs, did not impede Cord’s ability to work effectively as a teacher or as a School employee.”

Because the school’s actions affected her professionally because she spoke on matters of public concern as an individual, the lawsuit states that she suffered damages; and she requested a jury trial in the matter.

Eric Hylton, the attorney representing Susan Jill Cord in this case, said by phone earlier this week that the federal courts usually place cases like this on a 12- to 18-month track for a trial. He said that he expects the school corporation to submit an answer to the complaint on file sometime within the next month; with a conference in court between both parties sometime in late September.

Eric Hylton said that he does litigation on behalf of the Indiana State Teachers Association; and said that he believes the lawsuit is being supported by ISTA at the state level; and also by the Central Teachers Association here at the local level.

“We just believe that even though she is a teacher in the school corporation, she was in there talking about the school as a citizen,” Eric Hylton said. “After she spoke as a citizen, she was given poor evaluations and suspended. She was immediately suspended from her teaching position as a result of her going in as a citizen with her husband with concerns that they had about the schools.”

At the time of the meeting, Susan Jill Cord was a teacher at Switzerland County Middle School. Last year, she was reassigned as the alternative placement teacher at Switzerland County High School. This year, she is teaching English at Switzerland County Middle School.

Superintendent Caddell said that neither he nor the school corporation would comment on the lawsuit at this time; but noted that the school’s response to these allegations would be made public when the school corporation files its answer to the complaint.

Steve Groth, an attorney with the Bose McKinney Law Firm in Indianapolis, will be representing the school corporation and Tracy Caddell in this matter.