A trio of local lawsuits, two against Roncalli High School and one against Franklin Community Schools, are all set to go federal courts, but likely won’t see trial hearings before 2021.
The two lawsuits against Roncalli both relate to guidance counselors in separate same-sex marriages who were fired by the southside Catholic school during the 2018-19 school year. The third lawsuit, against Franklin schools, concerns a girl who was allegedly bullied over the course of several years. The lawsuit alleges the school district did little to nothing to address the perpetrators.
All three lawsuits were filed with in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Here is an update on where each stands:
Michelle Fitzgerald v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis
Roncalli counselor Shelly Fitzgerald was placed on administrative leave at the start of the 2018-19 school year when school officials discovered she is in a same-sex marriage, a move that gained national attention when the counselor appeared on the “Ellen” show.
Fitzgerald, whose contract was not renewed at the end of the school year, wants to see change in the way gay individuals are protected under the law. Any monetary gain from the lawsuit is secondary, said David Page, her Greenwood attorney.
She filed a federal lawsuit in October.
“Shelly has said from the beginning that this is not about money. This is an effort to force a change in the law to protect other similar individuals,” Page said. “To protect people after her is her biggest goal.”
The case may be delayed if the judge grants Roncalli a motion to wait until the U.S. Supreme Court decides on two cases determining if Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Page said.
Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment based on gender, race, color, national origin and religion. The gray area, and something that has weight on both the cases of Fitzgerald and a second counselor, Lynn Starkey, who was fired from Roncalli for the same reason, is if the prohibition on gender discrimination carries over to sexual orientation, which is what the Supreme Court will decide, he said.
Even if a judge rules that Roncalli did not violate Title VII, Fitzgerald should have a case based on a retaliation claim, meaning the judge could rule Roncalli acted in retaliation against Fitzgerald’s father, who wasn’t allowed to serve as a volunteer at the school’s senior retreat after he appeared on television at a rally for Fitzgerald, holding a sign that read, “Please treat my daughter Shelly kindly,” according to the lawsuit.
Lynn Starkey v. Roncalli High School and Archdiocese of Indianapolis
Months after Fitzgerald was put on leave for being in a same-sex marriage, Roncalli counselor Lynn Starkey was told her contract at the school would not be renewed either. Starkey, who is also married to a woman, is seeking a federal ruling as well.
Her lawyer, Chris Stake of Indianapolis, filed a federal lawsuit in July, also claiming discrimination under Title VII. The jury trial in that case is set for Feb. 22, 2021. Both parties are in the discovery process of the case right now, as they try and bolster their arguments, Stake said.
The chance of a settlement being reached before a trial are slim to none, he said.
“Cases can settle at any time, but this is not one either side is optimistic about settling,” Stake said.
As is the case with Fitzgerald, the Archdiocese of Indianapolis views Starkey’s marriage as something that is fundamentally against the teachings of the Catholic Church, Archdiocese spokesperson Greg Otolski said after Starkey’s contract was not renewed.
“Ms. Starkey is currently in breach of her contract with Roncalli High School,” Otolski said in an email. “She is in a civil union that is considered ‘contrary to a valid marriage as seen through the eyes of the Catholic Church.’
The 2019-20 contract language will contain the same language. Therefore, Ms. Starkey could not in good faith enter into the contract as long as she is unable to abide by the terms of the contract.”
Plaintiffs v. Franklin Community School Corporation
A lawsuit filed in May against Franklin Community Schools claims that the child of two anonymous plaintiffs was driven to multiple suicide attempts by the student’s peers. It also claims that the school did nothing to reprimand the students.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Thomas Blessing of Fishers, said a settlement conference was postponed and has not been rescheduled. A jury trial is set for January of 2021, Blessing said.
The lawsuit covers events that date back to 2015. During that time, the student “was the victim of a lengthy, severe and pervasive campaign of verbal and physical harassment by other students at school and on the school bus,” according to the lawsuit.
The goal of the lawsuit is to hold Franklin schools responsible for its inaction and attain a federal ruling that would help families in similar situations across the county, Blessing said in May.
“We want to make sure we stop this from happening, but schools often don’t take action until they’re forced. The school district knew about both suicide attempts. It continued to happen. The parents begged for years,” Blessing said.
Although Superintendent David Clendening would not comment on the lawsuit when it was filed, he has said at different grade levels students are educated about bullying and learn how to be inclusive and accepting of others.