LOUISVILLE, Ky. (CN) — A couple who say their daughter was expelled from a private Christian school for eating a rainbow birthday cake have taken their dispute to court alongside a defamation and invasion of privacy complaint filed Thursday against a prominent conservative magazine.
The parents of Kentucky high school student Kayla Kenney sued Louisville’s Whitefield Academy in Jefferson County Circuit Court Thursday for breach of contract, emotional distress and defamation.
Kenney, 15, was expelled from Whitefield Jan. 6 after her mother, Kimberley Alford, posted a photo of her on Facebook wearing a sweater with a rainbow on it and smiling over a brightly colored cake.
Whitefield’s head of school Bruce Jacobson sent the family an email with a screenshot of the post attached, writing that “the WA Administration has been made aware of a recent picture, posted on social media, which demonstrates a posture of morality and cultural acceptance contrary to that of Whitefield Academy’s beliefs,” and that “we made it clear that any further promotion, celebration or any other action and attitudes counter to Whitefield’s philosophy will not be tolerated.”
School officials later told Alford that Kayla should have refused the cake because of its color, Alford and husband Mark Kenney’s complaint says.
The lawsuit claims that the school’s expulsion of Kayla skipped several steps in its disciplinary process, and that school officials’ subsequent release of details about Kayla’s disciplinary record violated its privacy policies.
Whitefield’s disciplinary process involves four steps of escalation, and allows students “an opportunity for mercy and grace through contrition,” which it defines as “a student’s recognition and repentance for sin.” Alford and Kenney argue that Kayla was never given the chance for contrition.
The school, which is affiliated with the local Highview Baptist Church, said in a statement that Kayla Kenney’s expulsion was a result of a longer history of violating their code of conduct.
“Inaccurate media reports are circling stating that the student in question was expelled from our school solely for a social media post,” the school said. “In fact, she has unfortunately violated our student code of conduct numerous times over the past two years. In the fall, we met with the student to give her a final chance to begin to adhere to our code of conduct. Unfortunately, she did not live up to the agreement, and therefore, has been expelled.”
Alford and Kenney’s complaint, meanwhile, claims that Kayla was disciplined twice at the school, once for having an e-cigarette and once for cutting school during lunch. After she was caught with the e-cigarette, the complaint says, the school required counseling, during which the school’s counselor advised her not on nicotine use but on her sexuality. The next disciplinary action was Kayla’s expulsion.
Also named in the complaint are the American Conservative magazine and its senior editor Rod Dreher, who published a post Jan. 17 entitled “Rainbow Cake Girl: The True Story” with photos taken from the 15-year-old’s private Instagram account.
The photos have since been removed and replaced with messages from Dreher reading “I HAVE REMOVED THIS IMAGE OUT OF POSSIBLE COPYRIGHT CONCERNS” and summarizing text on some of the images. The story claimed that Kayla sexually harassed other female students and that she “has transgressed against other students … to promote bisexuality.”
The story, Alford and Kenney’s complaint claims, is defamatory, the photos were misappropriated and the writer made no effort to ask for permission to use them. Dreher has made three more posts on the subject since then, all focused on online discourse around the incident.
In one, he repeated the claim of sexual harassment against another student, which Alford and Kenney noted in the complaint.
Kayla Kenney’s expulsion sparked an online firestorm when it was first reported Jan. 13 in local news media. Dreher’s post followed articles in national media including USA Today and the Washington Post about Kayla’s expulsion. Prior to this, the complaint said, neither of Kayla’s parents were aware of her sexuality and she had never publicly disclosed it.
“[Kayla] is a child who has been harassed and mistreated by a school that her parents paid and trusted to keep her safe,” the complaint said. “[Kayla] is a child who, after struggling to accept her own sexuality, has been forced to abruptly confront her identity.”