Leaders at a public charter school in Northeast Washington filed a lawsuit Wednesday against antiabortion protesters who they say are harassing students in their efforts to stop construction of a Planned Parenthood facility next door.
Two Rivers Public Charter School alleges in a complaint filed in D.C. Superior Court that the protesters have engaged in “extreme and outrageous conduct” during the past several months, targeting schoolchildren as young as 3 with gruesome images of aborted fetuses and messages about the “murder facility” going in next to their school. The school is asking the court to order protesters not to talk to the schoolchildren or approach them outside the school.
“Our top priority is to provide a high-quality, joyful educational environment for our children, and we cannot do this if they do not feel safe,” said Jessica Wodatch, the school’s executive director, who notified families about the lawsuit in a letter Wednesday.
Parents at the high-performing charter school have been increasingly concerned about the neighboring clinic and the prospect of commuting to school with young children against the backdrop of one of the nation’s most heated culture wars.
Wodatch said in her letter to parents that the lawsuit should not be interpreted as the school taking a position in the debate on abortion.
“We are a diverse community with different viewpoints on the issue,” she wrote. “Our students are caught up in a controversy that is not about them — our goal is to allow them safe passage to school.”
Planned Parenthood is turning an abandoned warehouse into a full-service health center that will provide preventive care and abortion services. The clinic is expected to open next spring, and construction was underway this summer; small antiabortion demonstrations began before the first day of school.
Parents and teachers coming in for conferences at Two Rivers in August encountered protesters in front of the school holding pictures of dismembered fetuses and calling the neighboring facility a “baby killing center,” according to the complaint.
Since then, protesters have repeatedly waved graphic images at children as they walked toward their school, allegedly telling students that “they kill kids next door” and urging them to tell their parents to stop the “bloodbath that’s coming,” according to the lawsuit. The school claims that demonstrators have crowded the school’s drop-off lane and protesters have followed families up to the front door or down alleys behind the school when students tried to seek alternate entrances.
The allegedly harassing behavior has caused teachers to keep students inside during recess and made many parents and children fearful, the complaint says.
The complaint describes two demonstrations in November and includes the text of an email sent to administrators by one of the defendants last month that asked them how they plan to act to prevent Planned Parenthood from opening next door, and to protect their students and the reputation of their school.
“I’m sure you don’t want to see me, my anti-abortion friends and our graphic images any more than we want to be in your neighborhood,” the email said.
The complaint details plans for future protests, including one scheduled for Jan. 21 — the day before the annual March for Life. School officials are considering closing school that day to avoid harassment, the complaint says.
Lauren Handy, an antiabortion activist from Virginia who is named in the lawsuit, said the protesters are exercising their First Amendment rights, and they hope they can come to an understanding with the school. “It is tragic to see peaceful, prayerful public witness silenced in the nation’s capital,” Handy said.
The lawsuit is “typical of our culture,” said Jonathan Darnel of Northern Virginia, another protester included in the lawsuit. “We blame the messenger instead of the message. They should be filing a lawsuit against Planned Parenthood for moving in there and building this place next to their school.”
The lawsuit alleges that the protesters are intentionally inflicting emotional distress and that they are a private nuisance; the school wants to keep protesters away from students and from the entrance to the school during arrival and dismissal times. It also asks that protesters refrain from showing posters with graphic images or words such as “kill” and “murder” in a “manner reasonably likely to be viewed by children under 12 years of age.”
Two Rivers opened in 2003 and has both an elementary and middle school campus on an industrial block on Fourth Street NE, across from Union Market. The school, which enrolls about 500 students at the two campuses, had the longest wait list in the city last year.
The lawsuit says that the protesters could tarnish the school’s reputation as a safe, high-performing school and threaten its ability to attract or retain students in the future.
School leaders did not know of Planned Parenthood’s desire to relocate from its historic location on 16th Street, near the White House, until after the organization had purchased the building in 2013 and plans had been approved by the city. The future clinic is next door to the elementary school and across the street from the middle school.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a statement that she has been working with school officials at Two Rivers and police to make sure the city is “doing everything possible to protect students, their families and the community.”
“Students should be able to get to school without being harassed, and without any threat to their safety and security,” Bowser said.
The lawsuit names five defendants whom investigators have identified as protesters, but the injunction, if granted, would extend to other organizations or people who engage in similar behavior.
The protesters named in the lawsuit include Robert Weiler Jr., a Maryland resident who served a prison sentence for plotting to bomb an abortion clinic, and several activists connected to antiabortion groups.
Weiler, reached by phone Wednesday, had not had a chance to review the allegations in the complaint, but he said that he and others had deliberately refrained from displaying graphic images around young schoolchildren. He said protesters instead opted to show pictures of how a fetus appears in utero. School officials dispute that claim.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said in a statement that his office will investigate and prosecute any conduct that violates city law.
“Protecting children is one of our highest priorities at the office of the attorney general, and we are very concerned about the allegations set forth in the complaint,” Racine said. “We are committed to ensuring that students, teachers and parents are not harassed or otherwise intimidated by aggressive and unnecessarily inflammatory protests that go beyond the protections afforded by the First Amendment.”