Lowellville School Board threatens to sue parents who spoke against reopening plan

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The district's lawyer said the parents made "false and defamatory statements" but the parents say their First Amendment rights are being silenced

LOWELLVILLE, Ohio (WKBN) – A lawyer for the Lowellville School Board is demanding two parents stop what he called “false and defamatory statements,” threatening to file a lawsuit if they didn’t.

Chris and Gina Crilley spoke out against the board’s decision to move students to solely remote learning for the first nine weeks.

The Crilleys said they want transparency and that the decision was made abruptly without community input.

“That makes us wonder — and others in the community — what’s really going on and what are the real issues here? And just from the outside view looking in, speaking to multiple school board members and the superintendent, I don’t believe the board or the superintendent was prepared to put a plan in place,” Chris said Thursday.

On Friday, the Crilleys got a letter from Thomas Holmes, legal counsel for the school district. It was two paragraphs — four sentences — long with the regarding line stating simply, “cease and desist.”

“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Crilley:

I am the legal counsel for the Lowellville Local School District (“the District”). It has been brought to my attention that both of you have recently made various false and defamatory statements about the District and its employees.

Both of you are hereby directed to immediately cease and desist from making any further false and/or defamatory statements about the District and/or its employees. Failure to do so will result in the District filing a civil lawsuit against both of you for defamation, among other causes of action.”

Holmes said the Crilleys made the following false and defamatory statements:

  • The board of education violated the Open Meetings Act
  • The board of education and its administration did not receive any input from anyone prior to making their decisions regarding the district’s reopening plan
  • The board of education and its administration were not transparent in their decisions regarding the district’s reopening plan
  • The teachers are holding the board of education and its administration hostage

Late Friday afternoon, the Crilleys issued a statement in response:

“The cease and desist letter came as a shock to us as the only formal communication we have received from [Superintendent] Dr. Thomas in response to our letter dated 8/12/2020. It is disappointing our First Amendment rights are trying to be silenced, especially when the claims being made by the district’s attorney are false. We want what’s best for the teachers and students of our district and Dr. Thomas is refusing to engage in a community dialogue.”

Holmes said the Crilleys have a First Amendment right to criticize the board and its members. He said they do not have the right to make false and defamatory statements.

At a meeting Thursday night for Springfield Schools, Superintendent Tom Yazvac recalled a conversation with Lowellville’s superintendent about why the district decided on going strictly remote.

“What he’s explained to me, Dr. Thomas said that he had to go fully remote because he didn’t have the staff to cover his classrooms,” Yazvac said. “He had 25% of his staff looking to get medical documentation to not come back to the classroom. He couldn’t find subs to fill it.”

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