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A Springfield man who frequently addresses the school board has filed a lawsuit against a school police officer who allegedly tried to escort him out of a mid-August meeting.
Tim Havens, a retiree who describes himself as an activist, filed a civil lawsuit Sept. 14 against school police officer Jeff Engelhart, alleging assault and a violation of his First Amendment rights.
A spokesman for the district described the suit as a “frivolous legal action.”
Early in the Aug. 18 meeting, Havens addressed the board about its proposed re-entry plan for the 2020-21 year, calling it “ill-advised” and “negligent.” He urged the board to postpone the opening of school until there was a COVID-19 vaccine.
“You are gambling with the lives of the children,” he told the board.
Havens, who is representing himself, stated in the suit that he approached Board President Alina Lehnert during a short recess mid-meeting to request a copy of a document Superintendent John Jungmann was reading from during the open session.
The suit alleged that Jungmann “shouted and interrupted the conversation” and called for the officer. It is common for at least one officer to attend meetings.
In the suit, Havens alleges the officer grabbed his arm and used his weight to shift him toward the door. Havens said a woman from the audience intervened and he was able to break the officer’s grip and return to his seat.
Havens remained in the meeting. In three subsequent board meetings — Sept. 8, Sept. 22 and Oct. 6 — he has signed up to speak about the incident, often referring to himself in third-person.
“We had a man who was physically laid hands on by a police officer to be removed from the meeting and it was an order given by the superintendent,” he said Sept. 8. “And the reason he was given that order is because the man supposedly interrupted the meeting and engaged a board member in conversation.”
At the end, Havens added: “I think I’m due an apology and I think this board didn’t stick up for me when I hadn’t done anything wrong. An officer laid his hands on me, which is an assault.”
Stephen Hall, chief communications officer, said the district does not agree with Havens’ description of the interaction. He did not go into detail regarding the allegations.
“In this particular occurrence, the facts differ greatly from the description Mr. Havens has provided during public comments to the Board of Education,” Hall said. “Officer Engelhart acted appropriately by reminding Mr. Havens of acceptable conduct during Board meetings.”
Havens addressed the board Sept. 22, reiterating his right to attend public meetings and expressed concern that the officer allegedly acted on Jungmann’s request.
“Dr. Jungmann does not own police power. He cannot buy his own police force, obedient to him,” he said. “The fact that the officer obeyed a hand signal like a bird dog without question shows a lack of necessary assessment by the officer, a lack of independence. The officer’s oath is to protect and serve the public.”
Hall praised the work of Engelhart and noted the district’s support for the officer.
“SPS appreciates Officer Engelhart’s faithful public service and the district’s legal team will represent him as part of this frivolous legal action.”
In his remarks at the meeting, Havens accused the board of attempting to limit the free speech of the public.
“Knock it off. You’re unethical,” Havens said. “You violate people’s rights and you’re too arrogant to apologize.”
In the suit, Havens alleges extreme mental anguish, defamation of character and loss of respect and standing in the community. He requests a judgment of $1 million.
Havens attends nearly every board meeting. In the past year, he has signed up to speak about dyslexia, staff diversity, student success, and board member accessibility, among other topics.
Havens told the News-Leader that school officials are no longer returning calls. Asked about that, Hall said calls and emails from Havens were “very frequent” across multiple departments.
Hall said once Havens threatened legal action, district officials started referring him to attorney Ransom Ellis III.
“The district has had many interactions with Mr. Havens and numerous SPS representatives have sought to provide assistance and to accommodate his many requests,” Hall said. “In every situation, SPS staff have demonstrated professionalism regardless of Mr. Havens’ statements and actions.”
In the suit, Havens points to past activism involving city and county government, City Utilities, and public education. He has frequently meetings and signed up to speak in Springfield and Joplin public meetings.
“It is very important that plaintiff not have his reputation tarnished and have anything stand to be used to ban his access to government groups important to plaintiff’s activism,” Havens wrote in the suit. “Plaintiff’s brand has been soiled.”
A hearing in the suit is scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 3 in front of Greene County Associate Circuit Judge Jerry Harmison, former president of the Springfield school board.
Claudette Riley is the education reporter for the News-Leader. Email news tips to email@example.com and consider supporting vital local journalism by subscribing. Learn more by visiting News-Leader.com/subscribe.
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