Shelton, McNeal, board of education named
as defendants in principal’s transfer/demotion complaint lawsuit
by Danny Wade
Just when it was reported that a lawsuit against the Humboldt School Board had been settled out of court, another case has come to light. This time, former Humboldt Jr./Sr. High School principal, Jason Newman, has filed a complaint.
With the ink barely dry on Dr. Versie Hamlett’s $215,000 settlement, Newman’s attorney, Justin Gilbert, filed the lawsuit in federal court last week with the United States District Court for the Western District of Tennessee. Gilbert also represented Dr. Hamlett in her case against the school board. Similar to the defendants listed in Dr. Hamlett’s case, the city of Humboldt and the city of Humboldt Board of Education; Newman’s complaint lists the city, board of education, and Lillian Shelton and Leon McNeal, in their individual capacities.
Newman’s case stems from his demotion from principal of HJSHS to assistant principal at East Elementary School. In the lawsuit, Newman alleges his transfer was due to him being white and not black.
Even though the city of Humboldt has done nothing to be named as a defendant, Humboldt City Schools is part of the city and therefore falls under the city’s liability.
“Mr. Newman was hired by Dr. Versie Hamlett, the city’s first black director of schools,” as stated in Newman’s legal complaint as background for the case. “Leon McNeal, a black member of the Humboldt Board of Education, disliked Mr. Newman’s hire because Mr. Newman is white, not black. Mr. McNeal made this known to Dr. Hamlett.
“On March 30, 2020, Dr. Hamlett sounded a loud and public warning of institutional racism inside the city of Humboldt school system. In a federal lawsuit, based on personal conversations with McNeal himself, backed by contemporaneous notes and witness confirmation, she alleged the city and board, through McNeal’s influence, intended to replace white educators with black educators because, according to McNeal, only black educators were qualified to teach black students in Humboldt. With Dr. Hamlett’s departure, this would become the officially sanctioned policy, custom or practice for defendants, carried out by Ms. Lillian Shelton, the new director of schools.”
Newman’s contract was renewed on May 22, 2020, prior to Dr. Hamlett’s contract ending and well within her authority. Her settlement was finalized on August 5.
Days later on August 10, Shelton demoted Newman to assistant principal at East Elementary. Shelton created this position herself, without putting it into the budget to be adopted and approved by the school board, according to the complaint.
According to the lawsuit document, Shelton altered Newman’s 2020-21 contract by handwriting “assistant principal at East” on top of the contract. Shelton sent Newman a letter dated August 11 stating he was immediately transferred.
“That same day, August 10, 2020, Ms. Carla Brown, a black female, announced to her current employer in adjacent Madison County that she had been chosen to replace Mr. Newman as the high school principal,” according to the lawsuit document. “Her selection was made outside the normal hiring and interviewing process. On August 19 and 21, the board’s hiring committee conducted fake interviews for Mr. Newman’s principal position, the same position already offered to and accepted by Ms. Brown.
“The candidates were not informed that the selection had already been made, that Ms. Brown had already resigned her existing position in the neighboring school system, or that their interviews were merely tokens, window dressing.
“That ‘interview’ process confirmed what Dr. Hamlett had previously warned, and board members already knew: A job requirement was now being black. As it was explained in that ‘interview’ process, ‘we have too many whites in the system teaching our black kids.’ Being white was a disqualifier under defendants’ policy and practice of removing whites. Therefore, Mr. Newman’s white race caused his demotion and the interference with his contract as principal of Humboldt Jr. and Sr. High.”
The lawsuit alleges the city, board of education, McNeal and Shelton face a systemic crisis of their own making. The discrimination is intentional and emanates from the very highest level, its board of education, carried out at the director of schools level.
“Because there is no supervision of the board, defendants have proved incapable of reforming themselves and coming into compliance with non-discriminatory employment decisions under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the THRA. Put simply, discrimination is the policy.
“For these reasons, Mr. Newman seeks damages for the sting of racial discrimination, including humiliation and embarrassment, along with the loss of stature, prestige, reputation, and earning capacity due to the discrimination,” as stated in the complaint document. “He seeks his attorneys’ fees and costs by statutes. And he seeks reinstatement of the position, any pay losses and benefits.”
The lawsuit requests monetary damages sustained by Newman, including but not limited for humiliation and embarrassment, and emotional or reputational harm, and loss of wages or lost earning capacity. The lawsuit also seeks to prohibit the defendants from retaliation and requires racial discrimination training.
“It seems this is the day Dr. Hamlett warned us all about, and it did not take long,” said attorney Gilbert. “We must do our best to fight racial discrimination early because the long-term impact cripples schools, communities, businesses and minds.”
“I don’t think anyone likes filing lawsuits, but maybe my speaking out can help others,” said principal Newman. “I know Pastor Hodge and others are fighting hard and I can at least lend my voice.