Bus Driver Fired for Helping Hungry Student Fights Back With Lawsuit

A school-bus driver in rural Georgia who was fired after sticking up for a hungry student last spring has joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit against the school district on Thursday for “violating [his] free speech rights.” 

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The bumpy ride for the driver, Johnny Cook of Tallapoosa, began last May, when he posted a Facebook message expressing concern for a middle-school student who told him he was hungry after being denied a school lunch for not having the necessary 40 cents on his account. “This child is already on reduced lunch and we can't let him eat. Are you kidding me?” he had written in part, quickly galvanizing concern about school-lunch policies in the district, where 62 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced meals. He also angered Haralson County superintendent Brett Stanton, who, according to the suit, gave Cook a choice two days later: recant and apologize, or be terminated for violating the district’s social networking policy. Cook chose the latter.

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The school district has not responded to requests for comment from Yahoo Shine, but it has gone on record in the past, claiming that the student was never really denied his lunch in the first place. “In talking with the middle school principal and the cafeteria manager, that just did not happen,” Stanton told Fox Atlanta in May. The school later released surveillance video that showed the student entering the cafeteria but not attempting to go through the lunch line.

But that, notes the ACLU's Chad Brock, is “completely irrelevant to this case,” as Cook “reasonably believed” the story based on similar stories he had heard from other students in the past. “He was speaking out as a taxpayer, on a matter of public concern,” Brock tells Yahoo Shine, adding that his firing is “one of the most egregious examples of a school district infringing upon the rights of public employees that we’ve seen in years.”

The lawsuit claims that the school used its social-media policy — which attempts to regulate “disruptive” free speech — in an “unconstitutional manner,” Mike Kendall, a private attorney working in conjunction with the ACLU, tells Yahoo Shine. “It was not disruptive,” he says. “He didn’t even name the school in his post.” Additionally, the complaint notes, Cook’s post was “liked” by fellow employees of the school district, including his immediate supervisor.

Cook had been at the center of national media coverage in the spring, even inspiring a Change.org petition, signed by more than 15,000 supporters, to get him rehired. He’s now back in the spotlight at a time when national discourse about school-lunch policies has intensified — mainly since the surfacing of reports, in late January, that Utah’s Salt Lake City School District had taken lunches away from dozens of children who had a negative balance in their account. 

The ACLU suit seeks damages for distress and lost wages of an unnamed amount, punitive damages against Stanton for a “reckless disregard” of Cook’s rights, a statement about his termination being unlawful, an injunction to stop the district from illegally implementing its social-media policy, and the return of Cook’s job.
Cook was not available to speak to the media on Friday, according to his lawyers. But during a press conference on Thursday he said, “The message was of kids going hungry … of bringing a matter to light that needed to be brought to light.” Supporters on his public Facebook page (his private one has been removed) have been weighing in on the matter this week, posting comments including “Thank you for loving kids!” and “Speak your mind!”

Cook, who raises and sells horses for a living, relied on his job as a school-bus driver for his family’s health insurance and loved that it allowed him some extra time to see his children, who are students in the district, notes Brook. “We are honored to be a part of this case,” he says. “He’s genuinely a good person and genuinely cares about children going hungry.”

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