The Cobb school board has opted to settle with an assistant principal who filed a lawsuit alleging the school district retaliated against her for teaching yoga-based relaxation techniques.
The school board voted 4-3 on Friday to settle with Bonnie Cole, who in April 2017 filed a federal lawsuit alleging the district transferred her to a lower-performing school, Mableton Elementary, after she implemented yoga-based relaxation techniques at Bullard Elementary in Kennesaw.
Voting against the settlement were board members Randy Scamihorn, David Banks and Brad Wheeler.
Cole and her attorney, Edward Buckley of Atlanta-based Buckley Beal, LLP, accused the school district and Superintendent Chris Ragsdale of punishing her for implementing breathing and stretching exercises based on yoga to help reduce stress for teachers and students during the 2014-15 school year at Bullard. Cole claimed her transfer was an act of religious discrimination.
The school district has refuted Cole’s accusations.
Cole, who the lawsuit identified as a Christian, accused the school district of transferring her from Bullard to Mableton Elementary School as punishment following criticism from some parents about the exercises’ connections to non-Christian religions. She was an assistant principal at Bullard from 2006 to the 2015-16 school year and at Mableton for the following three years. She’s now an assistant principal at Frey Elementary School.
The settlement agreement calls for the district to pay $150,000 in exchange for “a full release, no admission of liability, and (her) resignation effective June 30, 2021,” according to Nan Kiel, a spokesperson for the school district.
Board member Jaha Howard said the board’s approval after nearly two hours of deliberation amounts to what is best for the district.
“For me, I made the decision I thought would be best for everybody involved,” he said, declining to expand.
But Scamihorn called the settlement a “terrible mistake,” that “opens up Pandora’s box.”
“My question is, ‘What does the board stand for?’ ... My preferred outcome would be that the district prevail in its original position,” he said, adding that there should not have been a lawsuit to begin with. “We did nothing wrong in other words — absolutely nothing wrong.”
Regardless of the claims of Cole’s suit, Scamihorn said, the case had nothing to do with religion, and the exercises were simply a disruption of the school day. The settlement, he continued, is not an admission of guilt by the district.
The school district initially called for the case to be dismissed, saying Cole tried “in vain” to grant herself religious protections she was not entitled to.
“The incurable flaw with this claim is that it is premised on activity — her implementation of exercise and breathing techniques at her school — that she herself admits were not at all religious in nature,” the school district’s 2017 response read in part.
Because the breathing exercises were not religious in nature, they are also not protected under the First Amendment, the response stated.
Cole and Buckley, as well as additional school board members did not respond to request for comment by press time.