A longtime middle school principal in Marshall, Minn., is suing the local district alleging she was ousted from her position after she included a rainbow pride flag as part of a larger flag display.
The rainbow flag, representing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, caused an uproar among a group of staff, parents, students and local clergy, according to the civil rights lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court. The principal, Mary Kay Thomas, was later removed from her post and put in a position that had never previously existed in the district and that the district does not intend to make permanent, according to the suit.
Thomas, an educator for 34 years and Marshall Middle School's principal for 15, put the pride flag in the cafeteria in January 2020. It was part of a display of 30 or so flags of marginalized communities, mostly flags of countries of origin for English-language learner students but also tribal flags and an autism flag.
According to the lawsuit, a "small group" in the southwestern Minnesota town wanted the pride flag taken down. Thomas resisted. Then she made rainbow stickers available for middle school staff and backed a gay-straight student alliance at the school.
"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,'" Thomas said in an interview. "I only regret that I didn't do it sooner."
Jeremy Williams, superintendent of Marshall Public Schools, said Tuesday the district is committed to creating a respectful, inclusive, safe learning and working environment.
"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," Williams said in a statement. "While the school cannot comment about the specific allegations made in the Complaint, the school district strongly denies any allegation of discriminatory conduct."
The complaint contains numerous other allegations about a hostile climate at Marshall schools, including a school board member using anti-gay slurs in the presence of principals, other school board members and faculty, and also making sexual advances toward Thomas.
The complaint alleges that the district "began subjecting Thomas to an escalating series of adverse actions — including, for example, a bad-faith employment investigation, involuntary leave, suspension without pay, and notice of deficiency."
This summer, according to the complaint, Thomas was removed as principal and assigned to a special projects position. She was also put on a yearlong performance improvement plan despite previously having been praised for her performance. Before this school year began, after Thomas was replaced as principal, the district took the pride flag down.
Thomas, 57, said the incident has upended her life. Thomas' daughter and son-in-law, both educators in the district who were committed to staying in Marshall, decided to move closer to the Twin Cities because they wanted to raise their five children in a more accepting climate.
"We need to accept every single child, and we're not currently doing that — and we're allowing particular individuals to dictate how that will look in our public school system," Thomas said. She added that educators in the district are "very concerned about whether or not they should keep their head down [about LGBTQ issues], because they could be next."
Thomas and the district had been sued earlier this year by a group of Marshall-area residents who claimed a student's First Amendment rights had been violated when the student's petition to take down the rainbow flag was confiscated. That lawsuit was filed in April, shortly after Thomas filed charges of discrimination with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
"What's at issue here is her legitimate attempt to protect the civil rights of LGBTQ students, and how that basically got flipped on her by this group of parents and clergy," said David Schlesinger, an attorney with Nichols Kaster, the Minneapolis firm representing Thomas.
In the lawsuit, Thomas seeks to be reinstated as principal, along with other damages.