‘It feels like we’re being bullied’: LR5 teacher describes school atmosphere amid lawsuits

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When a Midlands schoolteacher answered a lawyer’s questions for a school board member’s lawsuit, the lawyer offered her the chance to turn the tables for a moment and ask her questions. One question was weighing on Mary Wood’s mind.

“Are you guys going to come after teachers?” the Chapin High School teacher asked.

“When you say, you guys —” replied Desa Ballard, the attorney for Lexington-Richland 5 school board vice chair Ken Loveless.

“You as an attorney representing Mr. Loveless, are you going to sue teachers?” Wood said.

“I have no instructions to do that,” Ballard replied. “Is that helpful?”

“No,” Wood said.

The exchange is part of the depositions that Wood and eight other people were subpoenaed to give as part of a lawsuit Loveless filed against a constituent for critical comments made about him on Facebook. Loveless says the comments are defamatory. Those being deposed are community members who are being asked questions about their online posts and interactions with the school board.

Lawyers for those required to give the depositions — which involve people answering questions from attorneys under oath as part of evidence gathered for a lawsuit have said they were unsure what the purpose of the depositions was.

Loveless is suing two residents of the Chapin-Irmo area district for comments they made on Facebook: Kevin Scully, the husband of a teacher in the district, and Leslie Stiles, who operated a district-focused Facebook page called Deep Dive Into D5, which has been frozen since the lawsuit was filed in March. Loveless has claimed comments posted by the two were libelous, including comments attributed to Scully that “Crooked Ken is an unethical hypocrite and a liar.”

Tucker Player, attorney for Wood and two other women required to give depositions, asked Thursday for all their fees and costs to be covered. He described the depositions as the “bad faith” conduct of a “frivolous action.”

“The depositions were nothing more than an attempt to silence (Loveless’) critics and intimidate those who would stand against him,” Player argues in the filing.

In her deposition April 21, provided to The State and filed with a Richland County court as part of a motion Thursday, Wood complains about having to be out of the classroom to be deposed on a weekday.

“I should be teaching AP lang students and preparing them for their AP exam,” Wood said. “It interferes with my life in a number of ways because a school board member is suing a community member and a teacher’s husband while I am a teacher at the same school district. So this has been a cloud over my life and my professional environment and at my home.”

She said the lawsuits has been a distraction for teachers in the district, part of an atmosphere that she describes as chilling teachers’ ability to express their concerns. She noted that teachers had rarely spoken at school board meetings in recent months.

“It feels like we’re being bullied, ma’am,” Wood said. “It feels like I’m being bullied and it feels like that (suing teachers) is what is next. I feel uncomfortable here. I feel uncomfortable teaching in a district that has the board chair, vice chair, sorry, suing community members who seem to oppose him.”

One teacher who spoke in opposition to the board, Wood said, later received a visit from Loveless at school, after he asked to observe a classroom session. Wood said in the four years she’s been teaching in the district, she had never heard of a board member asking to look in on a teacher.

When contacted by The State on Thursday, Ballard declined to comment on the teacher’s statement about Loveless visiting the classroom.

“The next thing she knows, he is observing her in her classroom,” she said. “An observation of a teacher who speaks in opposition to a board member is a means of silencing that teacher. I don’t know if that was his intention, but that’s what it feels like.”

In a separate filing on Thursday, Loveless asked the court to limit the questions opposing attorneys can ask him, arguing he brought the defamation case as a “private matter” and should not have to answer questions about the operations of the school board on which he serves.

“Loveless is concerned that the scope of discovery ... needs to be established to prohibit discovery on any topic regarding actions Loveless has performed in his actions as a member of the Lexington/Richland School District 5 Board of Trustees.”

Loveless’ request, filed as part of the Scully case, is in response to what the document calls similarly “abusive” requests for information by Stiles’ attorneys, who have sought information from other members of the Lexington-Richland 5 school board.

Failing that, Loveless’ attorney also asks that the court limit the dissemination of whatever material is uncovered by the discovery process, citing an online comment attributed to Scully that “They desperately want to squash these suits b/c they know the discovery process will bring their corruption to light.”

“While defense counsel is of the highest integrity and professionalism, there are numerous persons in the community who want to publicize whatever information they obtain in discovery to perpetuate hostility and anger among persons for whom the actions of the Lexington Richland School District Five Board are of interest,” Loveless’ motion says.