Former Duluth principal files discrimination lawsuit

A woman speaks to the media
Former Denfeld High School principal Tonya Sconiers speaks at a press conference Monday about a lawsuit she filed against the Duluth Public Schools and two of its leaders.
Adelle Whitefoot

By Adelle Whitefoot via Duluth News Tribune

The now-former Denfeld High School principal filed a federal lawsuit against Duluth Public Schools and key leaders Monday morning.

Tonya Sconiers and her attorney filed a lawsuit against Duluth Public Schools, superintendent Bill Gronseth and assistant superintendent Jeff Horton claiming a violation of First Amendment rights and discrimination based on race and sex. Sconiers is seeking monetary relief, an amount to be determined by a jury.

Sconiers, along with her attorneys, held a news conference to make a statement and answer questions from the media.

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“As principal, I have been entrusted by the parents and our community to ensure that decision-making, financing and hiring, which impact our students, are always made in their best interest,” Sconiers read from a prepared statement. "Difficult challenges mean difficult decisions and courageous leadership. Consequently, courageous leaders must stand up to the injustices of the status quo in policies and practices.”

One of Sconiers’ attorneys, Ben Kwan, said they filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court in Duluth Monday alleging the district and key leaders retaliated against Sconiers for speaking out as a citizen on matters of “deep public concern.”

“Issues like educational equity, the opportunity gap, the achievement gap and most recently district hiring practices,” Kwan said at the news conference. “The complaint alleges that the district repeatedly retaliated against principal Sconiers for her speech, reprimanding her in December 2018, then suspending her without pay in March and May of this year.”

Kwan said six weeks after notifying the district in April that his law firm was investigating the basis of those unpaid suspensions, the district placed Sconiers on a paid administrative leave citing new allegations.

“Finally on July 29 the district informed principal Sconiers it intended to fire her,” Kwan said. “The complaint alleges that the district’s reasons for principal Sconiers' discipline and discharge were ginned up to paper her file and provide the district with a cover for its real motivation, which we allege is retaliation and discrimination.”

Sconiers was given the opportunity to fight the termination through arbitration but has decided to withdraw her request for arbitration on Monday.

The complaint also alleges that the district discriminated against Sconiers based on sex and race.

“The district treated principal Sconiers differently as a black woman going so far as to criticize things like the volume and the tone of her voice,” Kwan said.

Sconiers said she was saddened to be at odds with the district leadership and school district.

“It saddens me that the district attempted to silence me by threatening me, then suspending me and now firing me,” Sconiers said. “I will not be silenced. I refuse to let another year, another month or another day go by without holding our education system accountable for fair, just and equitable actions that benefit all students in Duluth Public Schools.”

Former Duluth East High School Principal Laurie Knapp has taken over the role at Denfeld on a substitute basis. Knapp had retired in 2016.

Duluth Public Schools has yet to respond to a request for a statement.