HANOVER -- A federal judge ruled earlier this week that Hanover County be dismissed as a defendant in a case filed earlier this year by the Hanover County Unit of the NAACP.
Robert E. Payne of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia granted a motion made by the county that removes the Hanover County Board of Supervisors and the county as defendants, but does not excuse the Hanover County School Board from the litigation.
In August, the local branch of the NAACP filed the suit, claiming the county’s refusal to change the names of two schools named for Confederate leaders violates the First and Fourteenth amendment rights of students who attend those schools.
The county’s motion to dismiss was based on the complaint’s “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
They also maintained the school board has authority regarding Hanover schools, not the board of supervisors.
The complaint originally named Hanover County and the school board as defendants and claimed that the “defendants are compelling Plaintiff’s members to express a view with which they disagree, namely that slavery and other values of the Confederacy should be endorsed and glorified.”
The complaint claimed that maintaining those names, in effect, creates “a school environment that denies African American students, including members of the NAACP, an equal opportunity to an education.”
The plaintiffs originally alleged a violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, but, in an early stipulation agreement, they dismissed that claim against the county.
Judge Payne wrote in his ruling that “Hanover County seeks dismissal of Claims 1 and 2 because it is not a proper part to this action for the reason that, under Virginia law, the School Board, and not the county, is the final policymaker for Hanover County public schools.”
The county’s motion to dismiss also alleges “that the Complaint is legally insufficient because it makes no substantive factual allegations against the County that would support the First Amendment claim in Claim 1 and the Fourteenth amendment in Claim 2.”
The plaintiffs in the case had claimed that the county is involved with policy making for the schools, but Payne wrote, “Under Virginia Law, the final policymaking body for Hanover County is the Hanover County Board of Supervisors. Moreover, under Virginia law, the School Board is the final policymaking authority for the Hanover Public Schools.”
The plaintiffs had argued that the county does have those policymaking powers because they appoint members to the school board and can seek a member’s removal.
“Not one of those points supports the contention that the County is the policymaking authority for the operation of the schools,” Payne wrote in his ruling.
Payne wrote the Complaint contains few allegations directly regarding the county.
“To the extent that there are allegations that mention the County, these allegations primarily focus on when the County integrated its public schools.”
Hanover County Attorney Dennis Walter issued the following comment regarding Judge Payne’s ruling:
“The County is pleased with the Court’s ruling that dismissed the claims made against the County.”
“The ruling confirms the County’s position that the School Board, and not the Board of Supervisors or the County government, is responsible for the operations of the Hanover County Public Schools, including decisions regarding the names of the schools and the mascots at the schools.”
Walter said the suit continues, but without the county as a defendant. “As the ruling did not address the claims against the School Board, that portion of the lawsuit continues.”
NAACP president Robert Barnette hinted the ruling was expected. “We were not surprised that the judge removed the Board of Supervisors from the lawsuit,” he said.
Gregg Kelley, director of Development and Communications for Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, the firm representing the NAACP, issued the following statement regarding the ruling:
“The Hanover County Board of Supervisors argued to the judge that the Hanover County School Board was the proper defendant in this case. The judge agreed with their position that the School Board is the proper defendant because the School Board has the ability under Virginia law to change the names,” Kelley said.
“The claims against the School Board stand so we will continue moving forward with our case,” he concluded.
The trial is scheduled to begin in May 2020.