A former Independence school board candidate is accusing district leadership of violating his free speech by banning him from public meetings after he spoke critically of their policies.
In a lawsuit filed last Friday in federal court, Jason Vollmecke, who lost his bid for a school board seat in April 2022, accused leadership, including superintendent Dale Herl, of restricting free speech, retaliation and disregarding due process. The lawsuit goes on to say Herl’s decision to ban Vollmecke from school grounds following a January incident at a school board meeting “constitutes unlawful viewpoint discrimination.”
He is asking the court end the ban immediately.
Since late 2021, Vollmecke has on numerous occasions voiced concerns with decisions made by district leadership, including at monthly meetings. His concerns range from the district’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic, to the removal of books from the elementary school library and the consideration of a four-day school week.
“I think we’ve made our position clear in our legal filings,” Lisa Hoppenjans, an attorney at the First Amendment Clinic at Washington University in St. Louis, said Thursday. She declined to comment further on the pending litigation.
The district in a statement Thursday said Vollmecke’s claims do not have any merit, and that they intend to “vigorously defend against the allegations.”
“It is unfortunate that the district will be required to use taxpayer resources to defend against this lawsuit. The district maintains its decision to restrict Mr. Vollmecke from District property, as it would with any visitor who engages in disruptive conduct,” the statement concluded.
Vollmecke, who himself is an alumni of Independence schools, began volunteering with the district in late 2016, according to the suit. As a chiropractic physician and certified medical examiner, Vollmecke said the district has invited him to lecture, offer career counseling, help with students’ science projects and even provide physicals and scoliosis screenings. He said he has won awards and recognition for his service.
Until he was banned, Vollmecke also chaired the school district’s Biomedical Sciences Advisory Committee, which helps make decisions about the school’s STEM Academy.
A few months into the pandemic in 2020, Vollmecke approached Herl with some concerns over how the district was addressing the pandemic, according to court filings. He became a regular attendee of school board meetings in late 2021, where he also voiced concerns about the pandemic and other school policies. He filed to run for a school board seat in December 2021.
Vollmecke told The Star ahead of the 2022 election that on issues of racism, the district has had an “if we don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist” approach.
“It’s easy to break down this issue as just a matter of school materials, but issues of race are much more complicated than that,” he said. “We should work on developing character, empathy, accountability, and community investment while teaching our children the critical thinking skills necessary to develop a better society.”
He also campaigned on enforcing the board’s oversight of the superintendent, improving transparency and communication, creating a less hostile work environment and retaining educators.
At the board meeting following his election loss, Vollmecke accused the board members of parroting the superintendent’s viewpoints, saying “the failure of board members to make independent evaluations was ‘dangerous,’” according to the suit.
At an August 2022 board meeting, he raised concerns about a book including gender-neutral pronouns being removed from the library as another example of the district’s failures to support and recognize LGBTQ students.
At that meeting, he called the book ban “asinine,” “ignorant,” and “such an absurd false dichotomy that brings into question your ability to make logical decisions for this district,” according to the lawsuit.
Then in September 2022, Vollmecke accused Herl of playing a role in the death of a school nurse who died by suicide after experiencing long COVID symptoms after catching the virus at work, court records show.
In late 2022, when he wanted to raise concerns about the proposal to move to a four-day school week, Vollmecke said Herl prevented his comments from being read when Vollmecke, who had COVID at the time, could only attend by Zoom, according to the suit.
Banned from schools
On Jan. 10, Vollmecke was four minutes late to the board meeting and missed the public comments section. When he asked to make public comments at the end of the meeting, he was told no, court records show. Vollmecke read his comments aloud anyway to those still seated. He was then escorted out by the school resource officer.
He received a letter from Herl the following day banning him from school property until Jan. 10, 2024. The letter stated he violated the board’s rule that community members are “expected to conduct themselves in a manner reflective of a positive role model for children.”
In a statement released after the incident, district officials said Vollmecke was cited for refusing to leave school district premises once the school board meeting had concluded.
“Mr. Vollmecke was given multiple opportunities by the Director of Public Safety to leave the boardroom once the meeting had concluded,” the statement read.
Vollmecke maintains he was not aggressive, harassing or violent when told to leave.
According to district policy, the superintendent can ban individuals from the school property at any time and for any period of time. Vollmecke said he was given no opportunity to appeal the decision.
The ban prevents Vollmecke from attending school board meetings, volunteering, taking his young son to the school playground on weekends, attending sports events, or running for school board again next year.