School board members reported mom to employer, DOJ for criticizing COVID school closures

Police detective said her special-needs child was academically cratering because of remote learning. School board member accused her of "veiled racism" in wake of George Floyd protests. Another complained to DOJ after she threatened to sue.

Published: October 4, 2022 4:30pm

Updated: October 4, 2022 11:09pm

School board members reported a police detective to her employer and the U.S. Department of Justice for showing "disrespect," making "over dramatic" comments about COVID-19 school policies and threatening to sue the district if it kept interrupting her at board meetings.

According to the lawyer for Michigan's Chippewa Valley Schools, the elected school board members were just exercising their First Amendment rights as private citizens, and the board had no involvement.

Sandra Hernden filed a First Amendment retaliation lawsuit against the school board and members Frank Bednard and Elizabeth Pyden, seeking to remove qualified immunity from the individual public officials for violating "a clearly defined constitutional right."

Even if Bednard and Pyden lose legal protection and face personal liability, Hernden won't seek more than $1 in nominal damages, according to Holly Wetzel, director of public relations for Hernden's lawyers at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Bednard's Oct. 5 2021 report to DOJ came a day after Attorney General Merrick Garland promised to prosecute "harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence" against school boards, which itself followed a National School Boards Association letter implying that harsh criticism of COVID policies was "domestic terrorism."

The board president told fellow members and Superintendent Ronald Roberts that he had forwarded to DOJ Hernden's email, which informed the board of an appeals court ruling prohibiting restrictions on "abusive" and "antagonistic" language at public meetings.

Wetzel told Just the News they are hoping to learn much more in legal discovery, including whom Bednard contacted at DOJ and what action if any followed his request to use federal resources against Hernden and "Mothers of Liberty," apparently referring to the nonprofit activist group Moms for Liberty. 

Bednard's letter portrays Hernden as a gadfly with no personal interest in district policies, claiming she doesn't have children in its schools. Wetzel said that was "blatantly false": Her older son stayed in the district and graduated in June.

Hernden transferred her younger son, who has special needs, to a neighboring district that was operating in person for the 2021-2022 school year because his GPA fell from 3.5 to 1.5 amid Chippewa Valley Schools' continued remote learning.

That prompted her to raise objections in fall 2020 through Zoom, attend in-person meetings and email the board. Forwarding an article that said school closures weren't based in science prompted a contentious email exchange with Pyden, the board secretary.

Schools can only reopen "when we can guarantee that doing so can be done safely," Pyden wrote Dec. 10. Hernden responded by questioning how Pyden, a lawyer, was "qualified to make any rational medical decision" and said her "political agenda" shouldn't prevent Hernden's child from going to school. 

Hernden's emails are signed #sayhisname, "referring to a local student who committed suicide during the remote learning in the later fall of 2020," Wetzel told Just the News. "[H]ow many more children will have to commit suicide before this school board will wake up?" Hernden ended one message.

Pyden ended the exchange by accusing her of "misinformation" and refused to further engage with Hernden, instead forwarding their email thread to her supervisor at the Harper Woods Department of Public Safety.

"As an elected official, I do expect criticism" but not "the level of disrespect ... and veiled racism" shown by Hernden, she wrote to Director Vince Smith without specifying. "I am disappointed that this type of behavior has been repeatedly rewarded with service awards" for Hernden.

Pyden said she didn't want "any adverse action" against Hernden, but for Smith to "perhaps offer some guidance" about her public conduct.

"We will look into this to determine if there are any department rule violations," Smith responded.

In an essay for Fox News, Hernden put Pyden's email to her supervisor in the context of the ongoing protests against police in the wake of George Floyd's death. The "veiled racism" allegation was "basically the same thing as saying [I] should be fired," she wrote.

The lawsuit is silent on the particulars of the investigation except that Hernden was cleared. She wasn't made aware of Pyden's letter until a week later, at which point the investigation had already started, Wetzel told Just the News. It wasn't "that intrusive" and didn't last more than a week.

After she transferred her younger son to the L'Anse Creuse school district, Hernden kept contacting the Chippewa Valley school board. 

In an Oct. 4, 2021 email titled "Special attention to Frank," she pointed to the July ruling that overturned an Ohio school district public comment policy because it "prohibit[s] speech purely because it disparages or offends." 

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' jurisdiction includes Michigan. "Maybe a lil more due care and caution at the next meeting Frank," she wrote, warning Bednard to stop interrupting her during public comment. "1st 2 were free."

The next day Bednard forwarded her email to the board and Superintendent Roberts, telling them he also forwarded it to DOJ along with a complaint about Hernden and "Mothers of Liberty."

His complaint to DOJ alludes to Garland's letter the prior day, thanking the department for "looking into these groups of people who bring such threats to anybody that stands in their way."

"This woman, Sandra Hernden, comes to every meeting to harass our board, administration, and community who oppose her views," he wrote. "She is over dramatic, and refuses to listen to any direction I may give her about her inappropriate and threatening comments."

The only example he offered, though, was Hernden's comparison of Nazi Germany's tattoos for Jews to school mask mandates, which Bednard said weren't in effect in the district. She has "no children in our schools, is not a resident of our district, and goes around to school board meetings throughout the tri county area" as a member of Moms for Liberty. 

The same 10-15 people who show up at every meeting are "so intimidating, no community members who oppose their message will come to the meeting to speak," Bednard wrote. "Anything that could be done to curb this behavior by these people would be greatly appreciated by our board, administration, and our community."

"The district never took any official action," Tim Mullins, an attorney for Chippewa Valley Schools, told The Detroit News. "The board never took any official action. She is unhappy about [Pyden] contacting her employer." The newspaper didn't mention him acknowledging Bednard's DOJ request.

Mullins didn't answer queries about whether he is also representing the individual defendants, and how the district can be eliminated as a defendant when Pyden and Bednard both portrayed themselves as acting in their official roles in their communications with Hernden's employer and DOJ.

Pyden and Bednard didn't answer queries.

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