Highland School Board agrees to settle lawsuit

RIVERSIDE — As part of a settlement with a Riverside woman who sued the Highland School District alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights, the district will pay $150,000 and issue an apology at its next meeting.

The settlement ends a five year lawsuit against the district that was filed when Riverside woman Abigail Cawiezell-Sojka alleged that the board had violated her rights by not allowing her to say negative comments about a school employee during public comment.

According to an agreement the Highland School Board approved 7-0 Tuesday evening, board President Nate Robinson will read the apology to Sojka at the first November school board meeting. The statement will be printed in the official minutes and be published in local media and on the district’s website. The settlement documentation says in return Sojka agrees to dismiss the lawsuit filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa with prejudice within three business days of the payment being received.

“The Highland Community School Board acknowledges that it likely violated Abigail Sojka’s First Amendment rights through Board policies. This occurred by the Board’s refusal to allow comments about personnel matters during Board meetings over the last four years. As a result, the Board has amended its policies to comply with the First Amendment. The Board apologizes to Ms. Sojka and her family,” is the apology that will be read at the meeting.

The settlement and the payment is being given in order to avoid the cost of litigation and is a full payment for settlement of all claims that were or could have been raised by Sojka. It is the result of a compromise of a disputed claim and does not constitute an admission of liability by the Highland district.

“Both sides agreed to end the litigation and signed the settlement agreement,” Highland School Superintendent Ken Crawford said. While not wanting to comment much on the suit or the settlement, Crawford said the board has amended its policy to realize public comments can be negative in nature and should be allowed.

The board agreed to the settlement after a closed-session meeting to review the terms.

Attempts to reach Sojka for comment were unsuccessful.