Weld County school board defended principal despite complaints of racism and homophobia, lawsuit claims

A Weld County school district superintendent who sought to fire a high school principal after complaints about his alleged racist and homophobic behavior was herself fired when the school board rallied in the principal’s defense, she claims in a federal lawsuit.

Leslie Arnold headed Weld RE-5J School District, which serves about 3,800 students around Johnstown and Milliken, for nearly three years before she was fired last year in what she says was retaliation for her attempts to fire Roosevelt High School’s then-principal Brian Littlefield.

The principal was the subject of a third-party investigation in 2021 after several parents and staff complained about his behavior.

Littlefield was criticized for refusing to discipline a basketball coach who used a racial slur to describe how his players were dribbling, and for initially dismissing concerns about a student who used a fake name that sounded like a racial slur during a virtual school pep rally, saying, “Kids will be kids,” according to the lawsuit, filed May 2 in U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado.

The basketball coach was fired by the school’s athletic director, even though Littlefield said he did not think the racist comment was a “big deal,” the complaint says. In another incident, Littlefield ordered a teacher to take down a Black Lives Matter sign but advocated for allowing another teacher to keep up a Blue Lives Matter flag, although he was overruled by fellow administrators and both signs were removed.

Littlefield also did not engage with students who barked at Black players on an opposing team during a volleyball game, the complaint says, instead delegating investigation of the incident to the school’s athletic director. He was more likely to dismiss ideas presented by women on his team than by men, to the point that women brought their ideas to male colleagues to present to Littlefield in order to be taken seriously, said John Culver, Arnold’s attorney.

Littlefield also made a comment aimed at transgender students to the school’s cheerleading coach, according to the complaint.

“‘…You’ve got to promise me we will have a true king and true queen for homecoming,’” he said, according to the complaint. “‘We’re not Boulder (High School).’”

The Boulder Valley School District has for years been known as a haven for transgender students.

Littlefield, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, declined to comment Tuesday, saying he was waiting for advice from his attorneys before speaking publicly about the allegations.

“I’m afraid I can’t make any comments right now,” he said.

Littlefield last year lodged a counter-complaint against Arnold and the school district’s human resources director, alleging they discriminated against him because he is a “white, conservative, Christian male,” according to the lawsuit. In May 2021, several people spoke at a school board meeting in support of Littlefield, saying that Arnold was the one creating problems in the district.

The school district hired the third-party investigator to look into the claims against both Littlefield and Arnold, according to the complaint. The investigation substantiated the complaints against Littlefield but found his allegation that he was discriminated against to be unfounded, the lawsuit says.

Arnold advocated for his firing after that investigation, but the school board instead decided to give Littlefield a warning and allow him to finish the school year as principal. He was out of the job by June 2021, the Greeley Tribune reported.

School board president Michael Wailes, who is named as a defendant along with the rest of the school board members, denied the allegations in a statement Tuesday.

“…The District denies that it in any way violated Ms. Arnold’s rights and will vigorously defend the lawsuit,” the statement said.

Other board members and the district’s superintendent did not return requests for comment.

Arnold, who declined to comment through her attorney, is seeking payment for lost wages. She previously worked as an assistant superintendent in the Boulder Valley School District, where she filed a complaint against then-superintendent Bruce Messinger that led to his firing.

She received a $260,000 settlement from the school district as she left that job in 2017. Her attorney, Culver, on Tuesday rejected arguments from Arnold’s opponents that she is a bad actor.

“The idea that she is some kind of problem employee who sets up school districts for litigation is ludicrous,” he said, pointing to the board’s consistently positive performance evaluations of Arnold before the dispute about Littlefield.

“It’s a righteous case,” he said. “What Leslie Arnold did was go out of her way to protect students and employees from discrimination, and for her efforts she ended up losing her job and possibly her career.”

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