A former middle school principal in Minnesota says she was removed from her position for displaying an LGBTQ+ Pride flag, and now she’s suing the school district.
Mary Kay Thomas included the Pride flag in a display of flags representing various marginalized communities that went up in the Marshall Middle School cafeteria in January 2020, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reports. There were about 30 flags, “mostly flags of countries of origin for English-language learner students but also tribal flags and an autism flag,” according to the paper.
Soon there were calls from some residents of Marshall, a town in southwestern Minnesota, to remove the Pride flag, and Thomas refused. She kept up her support for the LGBTQ+ community by making rainbow stickers available to the school’s staff and backing a gay-straight alliance. This led some critics to liken her to the devil, says her lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Minnesota.
By August of this year, the district, Marshall Public Schools, had decided to take the Pride flag down. “In the meantime, it has subjected Thomas to an escalating series of adverse actions — including, but not limited to, threatening her employment, conducting a bad-faith employment investigation, putting her on an indefinite involuntary leave, suspending her without pay, and putting a notice of deficiency in her personnel file,” her suit states. “Worse, the District has attempted to get Thomas to quit by removing her as middle-school principal, assigning her to a demeaning ‘special projects’ position, and putting her on a humiliating year-long performance improvement plan.”
This came even though she had consistently received positive performance reviews along with praise from colleagues and others, the suit says. She has been a middle school principal for 22 years, 15 of those at Marshall (2006-2021). Before that, she was a middle school teacher for 12 years. Superintendent Jeremy Williams has told her that her performance in the special projects job will be “closely monitored” during this school year and that if she does not meet “minimum standards,” she may be terminated.
The suit also alleges that school board member Bill Swope had used antigay slurs on several occasions in the presence of faculty and staff, and that he sexually harassed Thomas, attempting to forcibly kiss her and calling her “sweetness.”
The district’s actions against Thomas violate the Minnesota Human Rights Act, the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and federal antidiscrimination laws — Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the suit contends. It names the district, the school board, Williams, and individual school board members Swope and Jeff Chapman as defendants. She seeks reinstatement as principal and various damages.
Despite the negative reactions of some, Thomas has received praise for the Pride flag as well, she told the Star Tribune. “Plenty of former students reached out and said, ‘Thank you — if that flag were there when I was there, I would have had a much better life,’” she said. “I only regret that I didn’t do it sooner.”
Williams responded to local media’s requests for comment with this 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. While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the Complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct.”