Highland School Board apologizes for likely violating citizen's First Admendment right

RIVERSIDE — On Monday, as part of an agreed settlement, the Highland School Board read aloud an apology admitting it likely violated Abigail Cawiezell-Sojka’s First Amendment rights.

In addition to the apology, the district has agreed to pay $50,000. The settlement ends a five-year lawsuit against the district that was filed when Cawiezell-Sojka alleged that the board had violated her rights by not allowing her to say negative comments about a school employee during public comment. The settlement documentation says in return Sojka agrees to dismiss the lawsuit filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa with prejudice within three business days of the payment being received.

“The Highland Community School Board acknowledges that it likely violated Abigail Sojka’s First Amendment rights through Board policies. This occurred by the Board’s refusal to allow comments about personnel matters during Board meetings over the last four years. As a result, the Board has amended its policies to comply with the First Amendment. The Board apologizes to Ms. Sojka and her family,” was the apology read by board President Nate Robinson. The statement will be printed in the official minutes and be published in local media and on the district’s website.

In a written statement issued earlier this year, Sojka said the lawsuit was in response to school district employees’ behavior and actions that were hindering the students they served.

“I firmly believe that secrecy invites distrust and lack of accountability dismisses reassurance,” Sojka wrote. “People are human and people make mistakes, but it is how we choose to acknowledge our mistakes that will determine the likelihood of our mistakes being repeated.”

She wrote that it was never her intent to “sabotage or ruin” the school district, saying her only intent was to inform the school board of existing problems in the district. She stated in 2014 she had attempted to speak to the school board during the public comment section of the meeting regarding concerns about her daughter’s teacher.

“School board President Kevin Engel told me I must not use names of the school district employees,” she wrote. “In contrast, Kevin Engel allowed a school employee to identify a disabled child by name when speaking at a school board meeting about disabled children and their needs for transportation to and from school.”

She also said members of the public were allowed to speak freely about coach Marcus Hall. She believes this was allowed because of the viewpoints the citizens held. She also said if the board meeting was not the place to discuss the concerns, Engel had offered no other alternative.

The settlement and the payment is being given in order to avoid the cost of litigation and is a full payment for settlement of all claims that were or could have been raised by Sojka. It is the result of a compromise of a disputed claim and does not constitute an admission of liability by the Highland district.

“Both sides agreed to end the litigation and signed the settlement agreement,” Highland School Superintendent Ken Crawford said. While not wanting to comment much on the suit or the settlement, Crawford said the board has amended its policy to realize public comments can be negative in nature and should be allowed.