Clark superintendent files libel suit against assistant principal, others

jwarren@herald-leader.comNovember 14, 2012 

One of three finalists for the Fayette County Public Schools superintendent job is Clark County School Superintendent Elaine Ferris, a former interim state education commissioner who also has been an elementary schools director for the Fayette school district. Photo Provided

Clark County School Superintendent Elaine Farris has filed a lawsuit saying she is a victim of libel, slander and harassment by an assistant principal, his wife, and another woman, all of whom have publicly criticized Farris and the Clark school system over the last several months.

Filed Tuesday in Clark District Court, the lawsuit names as defendants Paul Columbia, assistant principal at George Rogers Clark High School and former football coach at Clark County High; his wife, Patricia Columbia; and Clark County resident Joan Graves.

The lawsuit says the defendants have made false oral and written statements impugning Farris' "personal and professional character and integrity," including making "false accusations" as to "Farris' character and ability to perform her duties as superintendent."

The defendants' actions constitute libel, slander and harassment, the lawsuit says.

"As a direct result ... Elaine Farris has suffered injury to her character and reputation, has been brought into public hatred, contempt and ridicule, and has suffered a loss of public confidence and respect," the suit says.

Farris has headed the Clark County schools since 2009 and has held several other top education posts in Kentucky. She became the first black superintendent in Kentucky when she took the helm of Shelby County Schools in 2004. She also has held senior posts in the Kentucky Department of Education, including serving as interim state education commissioner.

Farris was a finalist for Fayette County school superintendent in 2011.

Paul and Patricia Columbia, along with Graves, have been active for several months in a citizen group calling itself Stand Up Clark County that has criticized Farris and the county schools over various issues. In May, during one of the group's first public rallies, Patricia Columbia called for Farris to resign or be fired.

Candidates involved in Stand Up Clark County won two seats on the Clark County school board in the general election earlier this month. Graves' husband, Steve Graves, also active in the citizen group, ran for a third seat on the board but was defeated.

The Stand Up group formed after Paul Columbia was dismissed as the Clark County football coach in December 2011.

Farris' lawsuit says she met with Paul Columbia about Dec. 16, 2011, "to discuss his lawful termination" as coach. Paul Columbia asked that he be given the option of resigning, and Farris agreed, according to the lawsuit.

Columbia initially issued a statement to the Winchester Sun newspaper saying he had stepped down. Soon afterward, however, he retracted that statement and said he had been fired.

The lawsuit says the Columbias and Joan Graves have made false statements about Farris ever since.

Among other things, the suit says, Patricia Columbia swore out a "false criminal complaint" last month against Farris' niece, who works for Fayette County Public Schools. The action was "an attempt to further harass and embarrass the plaintiff," the suit says.

Farris is seeking punitive damages, court costs and attorney fees with interest, injunctive relief if necessary, and a trial by jury.

Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.

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