July 18, 2024

Keeping Media and Government Accountable.

Santa Fe Trail district kicks family out for disagreeing with policies

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Speaking out against some Santa Fe Trail school district policies has apparently resulted in dire consequences for one family, who — despite being integral parts of the district for years — have found themselves unceremoniously kicked out.

Milissa and Lance Caskey have sent their children to school in the Santa Fe Trail school district in Osage County for a long time, but in 2018 moved just outside the district’s boundaries. 

Kansas law allows parents to transfer their children to adjoining districts — if the school board approves — but up until now, the approval had always been pro forma.

This year, however, on the recommendation of Santa Fe Superintendent of Schools Jim Lentz, that approval was denied.

The Caskeys say this was retaliation for their — and their children’s — outspoken opposition to several school policies.

It all started in October of last year when their children were involved in a walkout to protest new instruction methods — moving mostly to computer-based learning — and the loss of several teachers because of the program. A walkout that Lentz said was orderly and peaceful.

“Last year our kids participated in the walkout against the new computer program,” Milissa, who is the Parent/Teacher Organization president for every school in the district but the high school, said. “And during that, one of the teachers stood up for the students and they tried to fire him.”

Millissa Caskey said she — and several of the students — also stood up for the teacher in question and managed to get him reinstated for a year. Her family also requested an SB40 hearing — as was their right by law — after one of their children was quarantined for COVID 19 exposure.

In retaliation, the Claskeys say, their children were kicked out of the Santa Fe Trail district — at the sole recommendation of Lentz — for exercising their First Amendment rights.

When reached by phone by the Sentinel it was a charge Lentz denied.

“We’re not denying anyone their freedom of speech,” Lentz said. “There’s been a lot of talk about that walk-out, that was back last fall. Nobody denied anybody their rights, the kids weren’t counted absent. They wanted a hearing under SB40, and they got that.”

He additionally implied, after saying that he “couldn’t talk about individual students” that the Caskeys had told their children to disobey the teachers and administration.

“In certain cases, where you have parents say to their children they don’t have to follow rules, or policies of the district, then that’s not free speech,” Lentz said. “Now you’re interfering with the operation of the school.”

What rules or policies their children had allegedly been told to ignore is unclear as Lentz can’t “talk about individual students.”

Lentz also insisted that the school board made the final decision — not him — but a recording of a phone call between Lentz and Milissa Caskey makes it clear that Lentz made the decision and the board just went along with it.

Phone call recording tells the truth

Shortly after receiving a letter stating their transfers were denied Milissa called Lentz to find out what was going on — particularly as the various building principals had already signed off on the transfers.

“Well, you know at some point, as superintendent, I get to make that decision in terms of making a recommendation to the board and it was my recommendation not to approve those transfers,” Lentz said in the recording.’

After Milissa asked why Lentz made it clear it was because of their opposition to his policies.

“My primary reason, Mrs. Caskey, part of that agreement is — if we accept your kids as transfers — that the family agrees to follow district policies and procedures,” Lentz said. “You guys are pretty obviously opposed to most of — several of — our policies and procedures. You’ve made that pretty clear.”

Why agreement with policies — rather than simple compliance with them — should be required is unclear, but it is clear that Lentz appears to have taken personal umbrage at being defied by one family.

Lentz made a false claim about justification for his decision

Lentz said in the interview with the Sentinel that approximately 150 pages of documentation were provided to both the board of education — and the Caskeys through their attorney — as to why the transfer was denied.

Lentz’s assertion that the board had 150 pages of “documentation” to justify kicking an entire family out of the district leaves the impression of troubled kids — and troubled parents — with a history of disciplinary issues.

The reality is, the Caskeys’ attorney told Milissa the “documentation” is nothing but their children’s school records from all of their years in the district.

“He said he is going to send it to me as soon as he can,” Milissa said in an email. “But he also stated that it is literally just all of the kids’ school files. As in, their whole file from all of their years at school.”

Milissa said their attorney stated there was absolutely nothing “incriminating” in the records.

Moreover, according to the Caskeys, theirs were the only children denied transfer. The Sentinel has sent a Kansas Open Records request for numbers of transfer students and both approvals and denials since 2018 — the year the Caskeys moved just out of the district.

Lentz’s decision has severe consequences for the family

The consequences of the denial are more than simply having to find a new school, one of their children is a senior — helped organize a local chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative student club — and is a football player. If the transfer is not approved, their son — Issac Hook — will be unable to play his final year of high school (the Kansas State High School Athletics Association requires that students transferring to a new district must sit out a year before they can play) and may not be able to get athletic scholarships for college. Nor would he be able to play with the team he had bonded with for three years.

Another of the Caskeys’ children is special needs, has an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) which requires summer school — and which the Caskeys say their child is now unable to complete.

“The only thing that changed between last year and this year is that we stood up against the board and tried to keep our teachers,” Lance Caskey said. “We stood up as a community and tried to voice our opinion on a bunch of subjects that, the reality is, Mr. Lentz was on the other side.

“And he lost a lot of those.”

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