Atheist student sues Delta schools
Complaint alleges staff punished her for views
A Delta High School graduate is suing the Delta County School District, claiming teachers and counselors retaliated against her when she spoke her mind, costing her scholarships and college admittance as well as causing mental anguish.
The lawsuit details several accusations by Cidney Fisk that school personnel dropped her grades, deprived her of honors, undermined her scholarship and university applications and created a hostile environment for her as she finished school. It also states that Fisk suffered “extreme emotional and mental harm, requiring hospitalization, inflicted by her teachers, counselors, and school officials, and possible lost opportunity to attend colleges and universities of her choice and to obtain scholarships.”
Fisk, who graduated in 2016 and now studies political science at the University of Denver, filed the civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver against the district through her attorneys, Jeffrey Springer and Andrew Reid of Denver, on Monday.
Individual administrators, teachers and counselors are also named in the lawsuit. Those include Superintendent Caryn Gibson, Principal Derek Carlson, counselors Shawna Magtutu and Holly Teyler-Crowder and teacher and student council sponsor John Miller.
The lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Fisk for economic losses, emotional distress and humiliation.
The complaint paints a picture of Fisk, an outspoken student, continually being discouraged from expressing her opinion, being thwarted in her refusal to align with majority values, and being punished for her views and opinions.
Fisk — who had a 4.1 GPA during her senior year, founded the school’s Young Democrats club and was active in speech and debate as well as student council — said the problems started when others didn’t agree with her opinions and tried to discourage her from expressing herself about the separation of church and state and controversial topics including abortion and gender issues.
Fisk, who made her atheistic beliefs public during her senior year during an incident in which district schools were forced to allow atheist materials to be distributed because they allowed Gideon Bibles to be offered to students, also criticized an abstinence-based sex education program with religious overtones that was presented to students.
Miller, the teacher, is accused of lowering Fisk’s A grade to an F almost immediately after she was featured in an April 2016 Daily Sentinel article about concerns over the separation of church and state in Delta schools. Fisk said she talked with Miller and Carlson about her grades during a meeting where the tone was quite hostile, and was told her “questioning of authority” was the reason for her decline in grades.
“They told Ms. Fisk that she was being highly disrespectful and that if she wanted her grades to go up, she should ‘shut up’ and ‘fake it until she makes it,’” the complaint said.
The complaint also claims that school officials tried to discourage student journalists from writing about religious issues and attempted to prevent the articles from being published.
Fisk also claims she was denied membership in the National Honor Society because of her attitude, and that others with lower grade-point averages and qualifications were recommended by the school and gained admittance.
Fisk also said she believes the school counselors ruined her chances of qualifying for the Boettcher and Daniels scholarships and provided negative recommendations to private colleges she applied to in retaliation for her speech and expressing non-Christian beliefs.
In the complaint, Fisk referenced a 2014 incident when she protested the proposed “personhood” amendment on the ballot by wearing a costume to school, and said a teacher made her remove the costume and publicly reprimanded her in front of others for her expression. After the incident, a school counselor and the teacher met with her, confronted her about a post on her social media and told her to change her attitude and stop criticizing the school, according to the complaint. Fisk also said the counselor threatened her and said if her attitude didn’t change, she “would hate to ruin her position in student government” and “ruin her grant opportunities” for college. After her parents asked the counselor to apologize, the counselor said if Fisk didn’t change her attitude, she would take away her letters of recommendation for scholarships, the complaint said.
Fisk said she suffered anxiety attacks and had to get medication and medical attention as a result of the treatment.
Among other things, the lawsuit claims the district violated Fisk’s free-speech rights, her free exercise of religion, and the Establishment and the Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
Delta County Assistant Superintendent Kurt Clay said he was aware of the lawsuit but had not seen it yet and declined to comment.