School Board Approves Consent Order to Settle Lawsuit

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RUSSELL, Pa. – The Warren County School District Board of Directors unanimously approved a consent order that would bring a settlement in a lawsuit filed by a group of parents and students over the district’s action on mask exemptions and discipline.

The district’s hired counsel for the suit, Michael J. Musone, filed a notice of settlement with the federal court in Erie last Tuesday. The agreement could not move forward until the board voted to approve the order. The board did not make any public discussion about the order before voting to approve it.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Erie on Oct. 4. The defendants named in the suit are the Warren County School District, the WCSD School Board as an entity, and each member of the school board as an individual.

The plaintiffs include nine minors, eight of whom are WCSD students, and their parents. One or more of the students either have disabilities and/or are under the age of 12 and unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

The suit arose due to the action taken at the Sept. 13 school board meeting. That night, the board voted to adopt a measure that would allow parents to claim an exemption from the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s indoor mask order without substantiation from a medical professional.

That measure, along with another that called for an “only warnings” policy for those who violated the mask requirement on district transportation, was rescinded during a special meeting on Oct. 8.

In the consent order, the district agrees that it will “comply with the August DOH Order as interpreted by the September PDE Directive until any of the following occur: 1) the August DOH Order is amended, modified, rescinded or deemed invalid or unlawful; 2) the Pennsylvania Department of Education amends, modifies or rescinds its guidance regarding the August DOH Order, or; 3) this Consent Order is modified or terminated by further Order of Court.”

Additionally, the plaintiffs will be deemed as the prevailing party and will have 14 days from the date the order is signed to file a petition requesting fees incurred in the case and the case will be dismissed with prejudice.

The settlement comes on the heels of a Commonwealth Court Panel ruling the state order was invalid because interim State Secretary of Health Allison Beam overstepped her authority when she issued the order. Commonwealth Court Judge Christine Fizzano Cannon added that the court was lifting the stay on the order, which went into effect when the state appealed the decision, on Dec. 4.

The state could issue a new emergency regulation to keep the mask order in place while the appeal process plays out in court. Oral arguments in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court are scheduled for Dec. 8.

Gov. Tom Wolf had previously announced the state “anticipated” the order would be lifted Jan. 17, 2022 and school mask decisions would revert back to each individual school district.