Davidson assistant principal's staff email about anti-discriminatory policy sparks controversy

A. Kevin Corvo
ThisWeek group

An assistant principal at Hilliard Davidson High School has drawn fire from a public-policy organization called the Center for Christian Virtue after she wrote a Feb. 16 email directing staff members to encourage students to write to Hilliard City Council in support of expanding a local anti-discrimination policy that had not been introduced as legislation.

Because the action was associated with "distribution of political literature" in relation to students, it was deemed "not appropriate" by Hilliard City Schools in a Feb. 18 statement.

The email, which referenced a proposal to expand the city’s policy to include sexual orientation, gender, marital status and pregnancy reportedly that had been suggested by a Hilliard City Schools student, was sent by assistant principal Kristen Clausen to a staff email group.  

It was included in a Feb. 18 news release from the Center for Christian Virtue that accused the school of committing an "unprecedented violation of the public trust" and trying "to turn students into lobbyists."

The Feb. 18 statement from Hilliard City Schools was provided by Stacie Raterman, director of communications for the district.

"The Hilliard City Schools' board of education and administration has been clear on their support of diversity and inclusion of all students and supports our students’ personal involvement in the political process as they choose," the statement said. "However, board policy sets clear expectations that literature promoting or opposing political figures, candidates or issues not be distributed in the school setting.

"In this case, we understand that students were not required to write letters in support of a particular issue, but any distribution of political literature to our students was not appropriate and should not have occurred.

"We discussed this with all involved and set new guidelines to assure this type of situation does not reoccur."

The email from Clausen outlined directions for 22-minute Black History Month recognition periods Feb. 17 and 19 and said to "please follow this agenda."

It told staff members to begin by reading from a script that said a Hilliard high school student had contacted City Council in September about ways to make the community more inclusive and accepting of all people, and two council members asked him "to leverage the power of student voice to help them expand existing anti-discrimination laws so that our city can protect people who are from communities related to sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, disability, marital status and pregnancy because our current law in Hilliard does not include community members related to those classes."

The script in the email then said: "Now, we need YOU. We need YOU to share with our elected officials in the form of a hard-copy letter why expanding the anti-discrimination legislation is necessary. If you have experienced discrimination because of sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, disability, marital status and pregnancy, please share your experiences as well so we can help the people who serve us understand us and understand why we need legislation that protects all people. There is a box where you can turn in your letter in the main office."

The script praised the student for "inclusive, transformative efforts" in contacting City Council, and it ended with: "Students, now it is your turn to help us bring about a better tomorrow."

The email went on to say that staff members should "please let students know that if they are interested in writing a letter to City Council supporting this bill, that they can do so and drop them off in the Main Office either in the designated box or to Mrs. Smith no later than next Wednesday, 2/24 as we will be in remote learning that Thursday and Friday."

The Hilliard City Schools Central Office is at 2140 Atlas St. in Columbus.

Aaron Baer, president of Columbus-based Center for Christian Virtue, said Feb. 19 that a teacher in the district brought Clausen's email to the attention of the center.

Baer said the teacher considered the email "intimidating" and an "ethical violation."

He said the organization has heard from other teachers, as well, and some were concerned it could affect their employment.

After the district's statement was issued, the Center for Christian Virtue responded via a Feb. 19 news release, which said in part: “The leadership at Hilliard Davidson needs to understand that celebrating diversity isn’t just about recognizing how we may look different. It’s also about respecting different perspectives and worldviews. The original email from the Hilliard Davidson administration failed to honor this timeless truth, and CCV is committed to ensuring no student or teacher is ever intimidated like this again."

Meanwhile, City Council’s proposal regarding the anti-discrimination policyhas yet to be discussed publicly and has not been introduced as legislation, council member Omar Tarazi told ThisWeek on Feb. 18.

ThisWeek has obtained a Jan. 15 email from Cynthia Vermillion to other council members and copied to the city’s staff attorney in which Vermillion wrote that Ohio Revised Code offers civil-rights protection based on race, color, religion, disability, age and other classes but not all others.

“The purpose of this (proposed) legislation is to expand civil-rights protections to include sexual orientation, gender, marital status and pregnancy,” Vermillion wrote. “Currently, the state of Ohio does not give protections to members of the LGBTQ community. Any protections afforded in our state have been enacted by local governing bodies. If I am discriminated against in Columbus, I receive protections. If it happens in Hilliard, I am not."

The email establishes a timeline and asks that council members provide feedback to the council clerk without copying the other council members and that no member of council attempt to revise the ordinance.

“We have spent countless hours writing and revising and have vetted it through the legal department,” wrote Vermillion, asking that all feedback be provided to the council clerk by Jan. 31.

ThisWeek asked David Ball, director of communications for Hilliard, if the city considers the request to provide feedback without including other council members a violation of Ohio's Sunshine Laws. He replied with a response from city attorney Phil Hartmann:

"Thank you for your inquiry. While your question is outside the scope of my duties as the Law Director to answer, I will state the following: The Open Meetings Act requires members of a public body to take official action, conduct deliberations, and discuss the public business in an open meeting, unless the subject matter is specifically exempted by law. The Act defines a 'meeting' as: (1) a prearranged gathering of (2) a majority of the members of a public body (3) for the purpose of discussing public business.

"Based on the foregoing, it is my opinion Councilmember Vermillion’s email did not violate the Open Meetings Act."

Vermillion's email included an attachment of a draft to replace Section 525.15 of the city code, “Discriminatory Practices, Civil Rights, Disclosures,” with an alternate version.

“Our goal is to hold an online community forum in early to mid-March,” according to the email.

Vermillion’s email references a student representative who “has already begun extensive engagement of the school community.”

It is the same student whom Clausen referenced in her email to Davidson’s staff.

Vermillion said the Hilliard Bradley High School student reached out to her while she and council member Andy Teater were in the midst of crafting the revised version of Section 525.15, and they welcomed his participation.

Expanding the city’s anti-discriminatory policy “is the right thing to do on a humanitarian level,” Vermillion told ThisWeek on Feb. 18.

Because the Ohio legislature has failed to approve the Ohio Fairness Act, each community has acted on its own to further protect its citizens “and Hilliard hasn’t done it yet,” Vermillion said.

The Ohio Fairness Act, bipartisan legislation that would protect LGBTQ Ohioans from discrimination in employment, housing, and accommodations, remains stalled in the Ohio General Assembly, according to a story published by cleveland.com.

Although Vermillion said she expects to introduce legislation, no draft has been presented for consideration, and a public hearing might come after March, if necessary.

"In the past few months, individual members of City Council have informally discussed bringing additional anti-discrimination legislation before council as a whole," Ball said. "At this time, city staff has not been asked by council to place any such legislation on an upcoming meeting agenda."

Tarazi said although he supports students learning about local government and even independently voicing their positions, he has concern about a City Council actively collaborating with students to lobby council on policy, particularly one that has not even been vetted pub.

"If Hilliard students or staff feel that they are being discriminated against or other groups treated with favoritism, and there is a role for a Hilliard city anti-discrimination law to address it, let us know," he said. "We want everyone in Hilliard to be treated fairly.

"However, if City Council members coordinated with the school administration to order a student letter-writing campaign, with taxpayer resources, in support of their 19-page draft law that nobody has read yet, then that would be completely irresponsible and unacceptable. It is particularly unfortunate because it was done under the manipulative pretense of extending legal protections for groups in Hilliard for the first time when they already have protections in Hilliard under federal and state law and by (our) charter."

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo