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Minnesota principal ousted over LGBT flag controversy, lawsuit claims

The former principal of Marshall Middle School alleges her employer pressured her to quit amid a heated disagreement over the display of a rainbow pride flag in a cafeteria.

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MARSHALL, Minn. — A southwest Minnesota middle school principal who lost her job after she displayed a rainbow pride flag in a school cafeteria filed a lawsuit this week alleging the district retaliated against her for supporting LGBT students.

A complaint filed Tuesday, Nov. 30, in U.S. District Court claims Marshall Public Schools ousted middle school principal Mary Kay Thomas earlier this year after a heated disagreement in the community about a flag she displayed in a cafeteria in early 2020 as part of an inclusiveness campaign at the school.

According to the lawsuit, a small group of "anti-LGBTQ middle-school staff, parents, students, and local clergy" pressured the school to remove the flag, which is a symbol of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride. In response to the push to remove the flag, Thomas began distributing rainbow stickers at the school.

The school eventually removed the flag in August 2021, after Thomas was forced from her position, the complaint said. She had been principal for 16 years.

Thomas claims the Marshall School District targeted her with an investigation, placed her on administrative leave, suspended her without pay and eventually drove her to quit after the district removed her as principal and placed her in a "demeaning" special projects position. She also claims school staff hostile to LGBT causes played a role in her removal and that Marshall Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams told her he could “make this all go away" if she stepped down.

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In a statement, Williams said Marshall Public Schools has strong policies against discrimination to protect students and staff and is committed to creating a respectful and inclusive learning environment.

"While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct," Williams said. "The school will vigorously defend itself against these allegations."

Thomas had a long record of good performance reviews as principal, according to the lawsuit. In 2019 former Superintendent Scott Monson called her a “Champion of Students,” particularly the underrepresented and marginalized. But after complaints from staff stemming from the flag controversy, Williams in March placed Thomas on administrative leave pending an investigation into nonspecific workplace allegations, according to the lawsuit.

The investigation was supposed to last only two or three weeks, the complaint said, but lasted into May. Thomas, who remained on leave until the summer, filed a discrimination complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Thomas' lawsuit seeks monetary damages from the district and to reinstate her as principal of the middle school. It comes after a group of local residents, Marshall Concerned Citizens, sued the district in April, alleging school officials unfairly targeted a group of students petitioning for the removal of the pride flag. Their complaint claimed the school violated students' First Amendment rights by suppressing speech in an environment "invited" by school officials.

U.S. District Court Judge Wilhelmina M. Wright in August dismissed the Marshall Concerned Citizens lawsuit with prejudice, meaning the group cannot bring another lawsuit in the matter.

Follow Alex Derosier on Twitter @xanderosier or email aderosier@forumcomm.com .

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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