Johnson County commissioner sues school district over masks. Judge dismisses lawsuit

Sarah Ritter
·5 min read

A judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit filed by Johnson County Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara against the Blue Valley school district after she was refused entry into a district hearing because she wouldn’t wear a face mask.

Johnson County District Court Judge Robert Wonnell ruled that O’Hara has no standing to file such a petition against the school district under Senate Bill 40. The bill, which the Republican-controlled Legislature passed and Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly signed last month, implemented a new system for fighting district, city and county COVID-19 restrictions.

Since then, Blue Valley and other Johnson County districts have received several complaints from parents looking to overturn school mask mandates.

Blue Valley scheduled a hearing on Tuesday after at least two parents challenged the district’s mask requirement, under the new law that empowers parents to quickly fight such school board decisions. O’Hara said she showed up to the hearing, accompanied by three friends, all of whom were not wearing masks.

In her lawsuit, O’Hara states that she was questioned by school officials for not wearing a mask. O’Hara claims to have a medical exemption for being hearing impaired with tinnitus. Johnson County’s health order does exempt the deaf or hard of hearing from the countywide mask mandate.

O’Hara alleged that she was told if she could not show proof of her exemption, she could not enter the meeting.

“I was really rather shocked,” O’Hara told The Star on Friday. “I went there in extremely good faith. I have been at numerous public events in the last three months without a mask. … I was at the county board meeting all day yesterday without a mask. No one has asked me for any exemption. I want them to stop bullying the public.”

Blue Valley on Friday filed a petition to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that O’Hara suffered no harm from the district’s enforcement of its mask mandate. Blue Valley’s attorneys argued that it was “yet another example of performative litigation filed to make a political point or garner publicity for a cause, without regard to the suit’s legal merit.”

O’Hara said that she planned to attend Tuesday’s hearing to support the parents who want the district’s mask mandate repealed. She also wants districts to remove their mask requirements, despite health officials’ pleas for them to stay in place because they help prevent the spread of COVID-19, making it safer for schools to remain open for in-person classes.

Blue Valley’s hearing on Tuesday was postponed after a different person refused to wear a mask or leave the board room. It was then rescheduled and held virtually on Wednesday. The next day, the school district announced that it will maintain its mask requirement. The parents could choose to appeal that decision in court.

Attorney Joseph Hatley, representing the district, argued that because the hearing was postponed, and O’Hara was allowed to watch it online the following day, she suffered no harm.

O’Hara, who represented herself in the suit, countered that the district took “several unjustified steps to limit or preclude public participation” in the hearing, including requiring attendees to register in advance.

Hatley also argued that O’Hara’s complaint was an issue of the district providing her with an accommodation for her disability, something that cannot be resolved under Senate Bill 40. The judge agreed.

The district argued in court documents that O’Hara “has several avenues to pursue complaints over accessibility to meetings she might lawfully be entitled to attend in the future, but this case is not one of them.”

Under the new law, school boards are required to hold a hearing within 72 hours after a request from a student, teacher or parent who is “aggrieved” by a board decision. After the hearing, boards have a week to make a decision, which can then be challenged in district court.

Blue Valley’s attorneys argued that O’Hara does not have the standing to challenge the district under the law, because she is not an employee, student, parent or guardian of a student.

“I have five grandkids in the school district and I’m a taxpayer,” O’Hara told The Star.

The judge sided with the school district on that point as well.

Also this past week, the Olathe school district held a hearing in response to a complaint, and the school board has scheduled a special meeting for April 12 to discuss its mask mandate. The De Soto school district previously held a hearing after receiving five complaints from parents, but none of the parents attended.

The judge’s ruling provides some clarity to districts, who have argued that their mask mandates cannot be repealed under the law because they were enacted last summer. The law requires individuals to contest board actions and policies within 30 days from the time they were taken or adopted.

Wonnell agreed with Blue Valley’s attorneys that the law cannot be “retroactively” applied, when the school board approved its mask mandate last August.

As a county commissioner, O’Hara — who was first elected in November — is tasked with voting on whether Johnson County issues public health orders. Last month, she voted against the extension of the mask mandate and social distancing rules through the end of April, which passed 5-2.

Johnson County, state and national health officials continue to emphasize that masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. District officials have said that with social distancing difficult to maintain in classrooms, mask-wearing is one of the most important and consistent mitigation strategies that schools can rely on.