Parent sues Macomb Co. school board, alleging free speech violations
A Michigan police officer is suing the Chippewa Valley Schools Board of Education and two of its members, alleging they contacted her employer and the U.S. Department of Justice after she complained about the impact of COVID-related school closures on her son.
On Thursday, Sandra Hernden, the mother of three boys, filed suit against the Chippewa Valley Schools' board, board president Frank Bednard and board secretary Elizabeth Pyden in U.S. District Court in Detroit.
Hernden was a detective at the Harper Woods Police Department when she spoke out against COVID-19 policies at her son's Clinton Township school district in the fall of 2020. He was 13 at the time.
Hernden said she disagreed with the district’s COVID-19 policies — they sent students home to learn remotely while nearby districts remained open — and spoke out at school board meetings, she said.
At one point, she accused the board of making politically motivated decisions that were not in the best interest of the students.
The suit said Hernden cautioned the board to "take additional care" when interrupting her public comments during board meetings, linking a media story about a federal court decision on public comment procedures that held that certain restrictions on public comment violated the First Amendment.
Tim Mullins, an attorney representing the district, said he sees the issue as a dispute between two people with First Amendment rights, Hernden and each board member, not the district and not the seven-member board.
"The district never took any official action. The board never took any official action," Mullins said. "She is unhappy about this individual contacting her employer."
Hernden, who now works at another police department and is a 24-year police force veteran, alleges she faced retaliation from school board members that included a Dec. 11, 2020, letter written to her Harper Woods police supervisor by Pyden.
The letter said: "I am writing with a concern regarding how one of your officers conducts herself in her own community. As you know, return to school has been a hotly contested issue, however, we must do what is best for the community at large.
"As an elected official, I do expect criticism. I also expect people to disagree with me. However, I do not expect the level of disrespect, even after being asked to stop, that has been shown by one of your public safety officers, Sandra Hernden. As a public servant, more is expected. I do not believe that you would like anyone expressing this level of anger, disrespect and veiled racism in your community," the letter said.
Hernden said she was subjected to an internal investigation. And she does not know why the letter references racism.
"My deputy chief pulled me into the office and said we needed to have a talk. I was absolutely in shock and awe. He told me it was forwarded to him from the chief, and they had to look at it and he didn’t think it was going to be a big deal," Hernden said.
While her employer later determined she had not violated any department rules, Hernden said she was afraid of losing her job in the tense environment after the May 25, 2020, death of George Floyd Jr., a 46-year-old Black man who was murdered in Minneapolis by a 44-year-old White police officer.
"It was on the heels of George Floyd. As a police officer, we really did come under a lot of scrutiny. Every cop, you cry they are racist and what do you think it is going to happen? (The department is) going to take notice," Hernden said.
She said she also learned that Bednard told other members of the board that he had sent a complaint about her to the Department of Justice.
"Anything that could be done to curb this behavior by these people would be greatly appreciated by our board, administration, and our community," Bernard said in an email to the DOJ, according to the lawsuit.
Hernden said she is suing because she does not want other parents silenced.
"You just can't do this to parents who want the best for their children. You can't. These are our children. We care about our children and their education," Hernden said.
During the pandemic, learning from home without the in-person assistance and individualized attention that he once had at school, her son's grades plummeted, with his grade point average dropping from 3.5 to 1.5, Hernden said.
He suffered socially, too. The teen went from being a happy, cheery and affectionate child to having emotional outbursts, crying and being angry, she said.
"There was anger and sadness and depression. And a lack of understanding of why we can't go back," Hernden said.
Hernden's son, who is now 15, is enrolled in another district and is thriving again.
"His grades are up. He said he wants to go to homecoming. It's something we never thought we would see again. We have gotten our son back," she said.