Federal lawsuit alleges City Schools of Decatur kicked critic’s family out of the districtElizabeth Wilson School Support Center, City Schools of Decatur. Photo by Dean Hesse.
This story has been updated.
Decatur, GA — A new federal lawsuit alleges that City Schools of Decatur removed the family of one of its most prominent critics because the district claimed she no longer lived in the city of Decatur.
But April Biagioni says her family met the district’s eligibility requirements while participating in Decatur Virtual Academy, a virtual learning option for families that didn’t want to attend schools in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her lawsuit argues that the district selected her family for removal over her criticism of CSD.
Superintendent Maggie Fehrman, who is named in the suit, had no comment.
“CSD has not been served with the lawsuit and therefore is not in a position to make a comment at this time,” Fehrman said.
Anita K. Bala, a partner at Buckley Bala Wilson Mew LLP, is representing Biagioni.
“Removing children from enrollment in a school district is analogous to the adverse action you see when an employee is fired from a job,” Bala said. “It is important to scrutinize public officials’ conduct when such drastic action is sequenced after an individual engages in significant legally protected activity under federal civil rights statutes. This is particularly so where, as alleged in this lawsuit, it appears that the school district inconsistently or selectively applies its residency requirement. In the case of young students and their education, the level of damage of an abrupt, mid-year displacement, especially during a pandemic, can have a lasting impact, especially if the students are recipients of federally protected educational services. We fully intend to vindicate the right of this family to engage in robust speech without fear of retaliatory action.”
If Bala’s name is familiar, it’s because she represented two other employees of CSD in federal lawsuits against the district and won large settlements for them.
The lawsuit says the Biagioni had three children enrolled in CSD until October 2021.
“During all relevant times, Plaintiffs Mark and April Biagioni owned a residential home within the geographic boundaries of Decatur, Georgia, which was their permanent residence,” the lawsuit says.
One child was eligible for a 504 Accommodation Plan and another child was eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. That child also has asthma, “a chronic respiratory condition that placed him at particularly high risk of life-threatening consequences if he contracted COVID-19.” Their third child also had an Individualized Education Plan for speech and had been flagged for other interventions, the lawsuit says.
Biagioni was a vocal advocate during the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, she joined several teachers organized outside CSD’s central office to protest the district’s planned return to in-person learning.
“At that time, the District had no mask mandate, and no vaccine had yet been developed and deemed safe for children,” the lawsuit says. The family felt in-person learning would not be an option for them due to their one child’s asthma diagnosis.
She was public in her criticism and signed a petition against the reopening plan. She organized a second protest in October 2020, the lawsuit says.
“Between October 10-14, 2020, she sent several emails to School Board members and spoke out at public meetings regarding CDSD’s ill-conceived and unsafe reopening plan for students forced to resume in-person with serious health risks…,” the lawsuit says.
Then Superintendent David Dude subsequently assigned April Biagioni to an “employee committee.”
“At the committee meeting, Mrs. Biagioni observed an absence of any diversity, so she sent emails to local advocacy groups and District officials pointing out the District’s exclusion of community members from diverse backgrounds based on race and disability in these committees related to the reopening plans,” the lawsuit says. “Representation of stakeholders from diverse backgrounds was a significant public issue because there was a concern that certain groups might be disparately impacted without deliberative decision-making regarding the return to in-person instruction.”
In November 2020, Biagioni wrote a letter to Dude asking “to create a virtual learning subcommittee that can consider the impact of returning to in-person instruction on vulnerable communities.”
She spoke out again in December 2020, during public comments at a Decatur School Board meeting, sharing her concerns-about in-person learning. She followed up with emails.
“On January 4, 2021, Mrs. Biagioni placed a visual memorial dedicated to school employees nationwide who died from COVID in public view on District property to remind the District and those in the community of the lives lost from COVID among educators,” the lawsuit says. “The District removed the memorial immediately.”
She spoke again during the school board’s March 2021 meeting about a lawsuit filed against Dude and the district by one of the clients Bala represented. Biagioni later demanded the school board fire Dude. In May 2021, she made a Facebook post about reduced Spanish instruction within CSD. Fehrman emailed Biagioni about her post and asked her to remove inaccurate information from it.
“A community member shared a post you made on Facebook regarding a decrease in Spanish hours for K-5 students,” Fehrman’s email says, according to the lawsuit. “We are not planning on decreasing our Spanish instruction by even one second for next year…In order to prevent misinformation going out to the community, I would greatly appreciate it if you reached out to me to ensure you have correct information before posting information on social media. I would also greatly appreciate it if you removed the inaccurate information from your post.”
Biagioni said she later confirmed that “Spanish hours were indeed cut.”
CSD launched its virtual academy in Spring of 2021.
“In March 2021, Mrs. Biagioni asked District officials whether any special education service hours would be cut for students enrolling in the virtual academy, to which CDSD officials responded they would not,” the lawsuit says.
Biagioni alleges that CSD officials misrepresented the quality and flexibility of its virtual academy. The lawsuit quotes Kristy Beam, associate superintendent and leader of DVA, as saying the program would be “great for families who traveled.” She’s also later quoted as saying the program would help families that want to participate in “sports and film” activities. One family was even allowed to participate in the virtual academy while staying in Europe, the lawsuit says. The district also allows families who temporarily move due to home renovations to continue their enrollment in the district, the lawsuit says.
But Biagioni says district officials singled out her family and looked for any excuse to boot her children from the district.
“Defendants singled Mrs. Biagioni out to actively monitor her Facebook activity to fish for reasons to take adverse action against the family, while ignoring or failing to involuntarily withdraw other families it knew to be accessing instruction from outside the boundaries of Decatur,” the lawsuit says.
Biagioni says while her family was promised equal educational opportunities within the virtual academy, CSD cut one child’s special education service hours from 24.13 hours to 3 hours per week “without any educational data to support the reduction in hours.” She pushed for her child to receive those services. She was told a contractor was responsible for providing those services, but a records request for the contract showed that wasn’t the vendor’s responsibility.
The reduction in hours and services was the opposite of what the district told Biagioni and other families in the virtual academy. Reducing these services harmed virtual academy students, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says CSD’s residency policy is vague and selectively applied.
Here is the current policy:
To classify as a resident student, a student shall be required to reside with the parent, legal custodian or legal guardian within the city limits of the City of Decatur. For purposes of the regulation, a resident is defined as an individual who is legally domiciled within the city limits of the City of Decatur and who, on any given school day, is likely to be at their stated address when not at work or school…A person who owns property in the City of Decatur, but does not reside in the city, is not considered a resident for purposes of enrollment…The superintendent shall be authorized to designate documents or other evidence that constitute acceptable proof of residency as part of the enrollment procedures consistent with this regulation. A school district employee may visit the address given at the time of enrollment or at any time thereafter to verify residency. The property address given must be the actual location where the student and parent, legal custodian or legal guardian are legally domiciled…
The Biagionis never moved out of Decatur, the lawsuit says. CSD officials came across an advertisement on Facebook stating the Biagionis’ home would be available for rent starting Sept. 1, 2021 and began the process of removing the family from the district. The district’s chief information officer determined the family was accessing virtual learning services from an IP address outside the district.
“The family had not taken up residence elsewhere and was temporarily out of state traveling to see family, as Assistant Superintendent Kristy Beam had previously advised DVA parents publicly that DVA was set up to allow,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit says the district never contacted the family or visited their home to verify who was living there. The district removed the Biagionis from the district on Oct. 1, 2021. The district refused to accept the proof of residency they provided and allowed other families to travel outside the district while accessing virtual services, the lawsuit says.
“As a result of Defendants intentional and reckless acts in refusing to accept Plaintiffs’ proof of residency, Plaintiffs were forced to sell their home in Decatur and move out of Decatur because Decatur refused to allow them to enroll and they maintained no other residence,” the lawsuit says. “Defendant Fehrman had final authority to review and approve withdrawal from enrollment decisions based on the residency requirement.”
Following the publication of this story, readers shared screenshots of the Facebook ad mentioned in the lawsuit.
When Decaturish asked Bala about the ad, the attorney said the home was rented to a member of the film industry and the rental wasn’t a violation of CSD’s policy.
“As stated in the complaint, the Biagionis did not rent the house out to another family,” Bala said. “Nor is there any rental posting where she advertised for other families to rent their home to access the schools. There was a temporary period when the film industry was using the property. I understand it is extremely common for residents of Decatur to allow the film industry to use their residences for filming in exchange for compensation; this does not result in giving up their residences or domiciles. Despite the film industry’s temporary use of their home, the family was still ‘legally domiciled’ in Decatur, which is the language used in the residency policy.”
The Biagionis are demanding an unspecified amount of money and any other relief determined by the court.
To read a copy of the lawsuit, click here.
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