Missouri AG Schmitt mixes up Kansas City, NKC districts in wave of school mask lawsuits

·5 min read
Jeff Roberson/AP

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has been promising for weeks to sue every school district in the state that maintains a mask mandate for students.

On Friday, his office rolled out so many lawsuits at once that it appeared to mistake one Kansas City school system for another.

Schmitt announced on Twitter Friday afternoon that he was suing the “Kansas City Missouri School District” in Jackson County Circuit Court.

But a copy he posted of the lawsuit itself included details about the removal and January reinstatement of a mask mandate in the North Kansas City School District, located in Clay County, following a city health order. Kansas City Public Schools has never removed its mask mandate, which is currently dictated by a City Council-approved ordinance.

Schmitt’s spokesman Chris Nuelle said the suit in question targeted KCPS. His office later posted a separate suit in Clay County against NKC. Neither had yet been filed in court mid-Friday afternoon.

The mix up, which Nuelle called a “small drafting issue,” indicates a rush to file otherwise identical challenges to school COVID rules across the state — a threat Schmitt had been making since December. A Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, the attorney general has made overturning local mask rules a central goal of his office and part of a core campaign promise to fight government overreach.

Schmitt announced three dozen lawsuits Friday, including ones against Lee’s Summit, Independence, Liberty, Center, Park Hill, Raytown and Holden schools. The latest actions, filed separately in each school district’s county, include parents from each district as plaintiffs.

The suits came as Missouri schools struggled to stay open in the face of staff shortages driven by the Omicron variant. This month, 62 school districts have had to shut down for at least a day, the state education department said Thursday, and several districts in the Kansas City metro have warned parents to prepare for closures if staff illnesses rise.

In the suits, Schmitt wrote that the districts “failed to consider the fact that the Omicron variant is less likely to cause severe illness and death” and called the mask rules “arbitrary and capricious.”

Earlier this month, Kansas City government leaders reinstated a mask mandate for K-12 schools as COVID-19 cases reached record highs. And the North Kansas City Council voted to extend its health order requiring masks in school buildings. The North Kansas City district has followed mask ordinances approved by both of those cities in which its schools are located.

Shortly after, the Lee’s Summit, Park Hill and Raytown school boards agreed to return to mandatory mask-wearing. The Liberty school board also reinstated its mask mandate earlier this month. And some other area districts, such as Kansas City Public Schools, have maintained a universal mask directive for the entire school year.

Schmitt’s suits argue that the mandates were always “prohibited” because they were not subject to renewal every 30 days last year by the school boards. A new state law passed last year limited local governments’ ability to issue mask mandates by subjecting the orders to periodic review by a locally elected board or council.

Lee’s Summit spokeswoman Katy Bergen said that “legal counsel for the Board of Education has previously expressed the district’s intention to defend its duty under Missouri law to protect the health and safety of its students and staff. We look forward to vindicating our legal position in court.”

Susan Hiland, spokeswoman for the North Kansas City district, said the system’s “top priority is the health and safety of our staff and students. We also value in-person instruction as the best learning environment for the vast majority of students we serve.”

“We are aware of actions taken by the Missouri Attorney General’s office today and will respond as necessary once the district has had the opportunity to fully consider the allegations. In accordance with Board of Education policy, we have and will continue to follow the current COVID-19 protocols with direction from local health agencies.”

A Park Hill spokeswoman said that district officials learned about the lawsuit “from Twitter and from the media, but we have not been served, so we have not an opportunity to look this over.”

Kansas City Public Schools spokeswoman Elle Moxley said the district cannot comment on pending litigation. And other district officials did not immediately return The Star’s request for comment on the lawsuits on Friday.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas on Twitter called the suits “nuisance litigation.”

“Kansas City government and I personally will evaluate all available methods to support our teachers and students,” he wrote. “Our state lawyer’s ongoing harassment of Missouri’s schools should be sanctioned by the State Bar.”

Schmitt first sued Columbia schools last fall in an attempt to invalidate all school mask orders, but a Boone County judge rejected that request. His office ultimately withdrew the case in December after the Columbia school board removed its mandate.

Last month, a wave of school districts made masks optional for the new semester partly in response to Schmitt, who used a Cole County court decision in an unrelated case to issue a new round of legal threats. That decision, rendered by Judge Daniel Green, threw out a slew of state health regulations related to local health departments’ powers to issue disease-control orders.

But other districts, such as Lee’s Summit, defended their COVID rules against the threats, arguing that Green’s ruling did not apply to other state laws giving school boards authority over rules in their own districts.

In a December letter, the Lee’s Summit district’s attorney Joseph Hatley all but told off Schmitt, writing that the “Missouri Legislature has expressly granted local boards of education wide-ranging power to manage and govern their own affairs, power that you have no authority to interfere with.”

In the latest complaints, Schmitt does not mention the Cole County decision, which Jackson County and other local health departments are attempting to appeal, but argues that the state health department had not delegated public health powers to the school districts.

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