A Washington, D.C.-based conservative group and three local families filed a federal lawsuit against Wellesley Public Schools Tuesday, alleging that the district violates white students’ civil rights and squashes free speech.
Parents Defending Education said the district and multiple administrators have unfairly created “racial affinity groups” for students of color and adopted policies against biased speech that shame people into silence.
“Nearly seven decades of Supreme Court precedent have made two things clear: Public schools cannot segregate students by race, and students do not abandon their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate,” the complaint states. “WPS is flouting both of these principles.”
The families are identified only as having children enrolled in the Wellesley Public Schools, according to the lawsuit filed in US District Court in Boston.
The parents and their children “wish to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation from WPS teachers, WPS administrators, and members of the Wellesley community if their identities are publicized,” the complaint states.
Parents Defending Education first took issue with the district in May, two months after Wellesley Public Schools hosted a conversation for students of color about the Atlanta mass shootings that killed eight people, including six Asian American women. An e-mail invitation from a Wellesley teacher read: “This is a safe space for our Asian/Asian-American and Students of Color, *not* for students who identify only as White.”
The Globe previously reported that several white students did attend the event.
The lawsuit alleges that the March event and existence of racial affinity groups reintroduced segregation to the classroom. They claim the groups exclude white students and foster division — an alleged violation of the 14th Amendment, which grants equal protection to all people.
Parents Defending Education also alleges that a white teacher was denied access to the conversation, titled “Healing Space for the Asian and Asian American community.”
In addition, the group said the district refused to form an affinity group for Jewish community members and sponsored a presentation at Wellesley High School that denounced Blue Lives Matter, a movement that advocates for law enforcement.
Stephanie Hawkinson, communications and project manager for the town, said in an e-mail on Wednesday that the district is aware of the lawsuit and “has no comment at this time.”
Parents Defending Education also decried a districtwide biased speech policy that encourages students to report hateful incidents. The policy’s “overbroad, vague restrictions on student speech have been weaponized by certain students to punish classmates who express unpopular views,” the lawsuit reads.
The policy hurt students who tried to display Israeli and “Thin Blue Line” flags alongside Black Lives Matter flags, according to the lawsuit. It also references a student who allegedly withdrew from Wellesley Public Schools after the policy made him lose “all self-confidence and self-esteem.”
In the lawsuit, the Wellesley families said their children are wary of expressing opinions about abortion, race, affirmative action, and gender identity. All lodged complaints that students’ speech was policed in class. One alleges their child was assaulted at school after students found out their parent voted Donald Trump.
The parents said they have repeatedly reached out to the district, but their concerns were ignored, according to the lawsuit.
Parents Defending Education asked the court to eliminate both the racial affinity group and biased speech policies.
“Wellesley Public Schools maintains multiple policies that demonstrate the district’s deep contempt for the constitutional rights of its students,” said Parents Defending Education president Nicole Neily in a statement posted to the group’s website. “Racial and viewpoint discrimination have no place in an American public school, and we are proud to fight on behalf of our members to put a stop to these unconstitutional policies.”
Parents Defending Education did not respond to an e-mail.
In May, legal and educational experts told the Globe they believe Parents Defending Education launched a complaint to dissuade other public school districts from pursuing similar campaigns for students of color.
The group has filed at least five additional complaints nationwide, including one against the Columbus, Ohio, school board where 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by police.
The student population in Wellesley, an affluent suburban district, is 70 percent white. Fourteen percent of students identify as Asian American, 4 percent as Black, and 5 percent Latino.
Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.