BENTONVILLE -- Three parents filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the School District to stop the requirement to wear masks at school.
The School Board voted 5-2 on Aug. 11 to require masks indoors and on buses for staff and students 3 and older. Brent Leas, secretary, and Eric White, board president, voted against the measure.
Matthew Bennett, Elizabeth Bennett and Matt Sitton are listed as plaintiffs in the case, according to the lawsuit.
All three petitioners are Benton County residents and have school-age children attending Bentonville schools, according to the petition for declaratory judgement.
The lawsuit states the district didn't have the legal authority to require wearing masks in schools and the decision violates the personal liberties of families secured by the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions. The lawsuit calls for a temporary block of the mask mandate detailed in the 2021-22 Bentonville Safe Schools Plan until a judgment can be made in the case.
"Because of this illegal act by the school board, parents must choose whether to send their children to school without masks and face disciplinary action, or with masks against their will at the risk of their psycho-social needs and developmental milestones," according to a Thursday news release from Story Law Firm, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case. "While the mask mandate may be the issue, this suit is entirely about whether the Bentonville School Board has the authority to enact this policy -- the law is simple -- they do not."
Travis Story and Gregory Payne, both of Story Law Firm, are representing the plaintiffs.
"School districts in Arkansas simply don't have authority to issue laws of general applicability concerning health issues such as this," Story said.
An executive order from Gov. Asa Hutchinson or José Romero, Arkansas secretary of health, would be required to legally require masks in schools, as was the case for the 2020-21 school year, he said.
"Our hope is that the courts simply look at this and understand there's a fundamental interest by parents, and therefore students in the district," Story said, adding he hopes the mask mandate would be found to be unconstitutional in a violation of the district's authority by the court.
Superintendent Debbie Jones and all seven members of the School Board are all listed as defendants in the case, according to the lawsuit.
"We were made aware of this situation Thursday morning," said Leslee Wright, district communications director. "Our legal counsel is currently reviewing the matter, and we look forward to a vigorous defense of our district."
The Aug. 11 decision to require masks was made amid community protest outside the district's administration building on Tiger Boulevard, where members of the community gathered holding signs against mask mandates and chanting "my child, my choice" throughout the public comment portion of the special meeting.
A Pulaski County Circuit Court judge on Aug. 6 ruled a state law banning mask mandates for public institutions -- including school districts, universities, cities and counties -- was unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction against it. The law isn't in effect at the moment, prompting mask decisions by school districts throughout the state.
The case has been assigned to Xollie Duncan, Benton County circuit court judge, according to the docket report.
The Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville school districts are among some of the other Northwest Arkansas districts that have imposed some form of mask mandate, at least for the first month of this school year.
Safe Schools Plan
Bentonville School District’s Safe Schools Plan is available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/13_NsDqQays-kAAWe3jzVpk6KDt5VwlWS/view?ts=60fe2955.
Source: Bentonville Public Schools