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Censured SF School Board Member Alison Collins Sues District, Colleagues for Constitutional Rights Violations

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A woman standing in front of microphones at a news conference.
San Francisco Board of Education Commissioner Alison Collins addresses her supporters at a rally in San Francisco on March 31, 2021. (MJ Johnson/KQED)

Alison Collins, the former vice president of San Francisco’s school board, is suing the district and five of its board members after they voted last week to strip her of several leadership roles over recently unearthed tweets she posted in 2016 sharply critical of Asian Americans.

In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court, Collins accuses her colleagues and the district of violating her constitutional rights, including free speech. The suit is seeking close to $90 million in damages from the San Francisco Unified School District and five Board of Education members who supported a no-confidence vote against her. It also demands the board reinstate her as vice president and back into the committee leadership positions she was removed from.

“Rather than take actions to protect Black and Brown children from racist harassment and bullying, defendants opted to ‘burn’ the messenger, using a pretzel-twisted redirection of Ms. Collins' seasoned social metaphors aimed at uniting all marginalized, colonized and racially oppressed people against racism and oppression,” the suit says.

The suit further alleges that the action to remove Collins as vice presidents caused “irreparable injury, loss and damage to Ms. Collins, including damage to her reputation and standing in the community.”

At a rally supporting her, held Wednesday evening outside of SFUSD headquarters, Collins said she has been the focus of a “targeted smear campaign to label me as a racist."

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“I will continue to advocate for children and family and for those whose voices are often unheard and whose futures lie in the balance,” Collins told a crowd of about 50 supporters. “I invite you to join me in making this moment count to not let me or anyone else be swept under the rug, canceled or dismissed for speaking truth to power.”

Collins, who is Black, came under fire earlier this month after critics resurfaced a thread of inflammatory tweets she wrote more than four years ago, accusing Asian Americans of failing to support other racial minority groups.

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Many Asian Americans, she wrote, “believe they benefit from the ‘model minority’ BS’ ” and “use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.’ ” Collins also used derogatory terms like "tiger moms" and "house n****r" in some references to Asian Americans.

At the end of the thread, Collins called for Asian Americans to speak out against then-President Donald Trump’s policies, citing an incident in which her daughter allegedly helped stop a group of Asian American boys from bullying a Latino student at her Asian American majority school.

“Don’t Asian Americans know they are on his list as well?” Collins wrote. “Do they think they won’t be deported? profiled? beaten?”

Collins has since said her words were taken out of context and apologized “for the pain my words may have caused.”

Since they were first circulated over a week ago, dozens of officials, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, have condemned the tweets and called on Collins to resign, even as a number of local Black leaders and civil rights groups have come to her defense.

The posts were resurfaced amid a surge of violence and harassment against Asian Americans in the Bay Area and around the country, including a mass shooting in Georgia that left six women of Asian descent and two others dead.

The tweeting incident is the latest embarrassment for the city's embattled school board, which has prided itself on putting racial equity at the top of its agenda. The board has recently faced fierce criticism from parent groups for its handling of school reopenings, as well as its support for renaming many district schools and changing the admissions policy of its most prestigious high school.

During a school board meeting earlier this month, shortly after Collins' tweets reemerged, Lowell High School senior Shavonne Hines-Foster, a student delegate for the district and a member of her school's Black Student Union, admonished some of the adults who have been most vocal in this controversy. Students, she said, have been afraid to weigh in for fear of the backlash that might follow.

“A lot of students have stayed away from this because a lot of you are nasty, very nasty in how you engage in this conversation and bring in this topic,” Hines-Foster said. "A lot of us feel like it isn’t our place to be engaged, because we don’t want to be swept over or taken in or attacked as a casualty.”

Hines-Foster, who is Black, and two other San Francisco high school students, who are both Asian American, created a presentation summarizing their reactions to Collins' tweets, each teen offering a different perspective.

“I understand the message she’s trying to get to, just anti-Blackness in the Asian community. I think it’s a very real thing,” said Vishal Krishnaiah, a junior at Lowell High School, the only one in the group of three students who thinks Collins should resign. “And as an Asian person myself, I just can’t overlook the way she’s expressed that. I understand the message, but the way she said it is atrocious.”

Krishnaiah said he didn't understand what Collins gains from filing the lawsuit.

"After a long time of incessantly calling people out for even the most minor faults, the moment people retaliate for her own racist actions, she sues the very body that she represents," he said.

The third student, George Washington High School senior Madeline Cho, said she wants more people to be willing to talk about internalized racism and white supremacy.

And in order to have a constructive conversation, Cho said, people need to listen to the voices of those most hurt by racism and discrimination in San Francisco schools.

"There needs to be just an open mindedness and a setting down of ego and pride,” she said, “especially by a lot of politicians and particularly parents who seem the most hesitant to just calm down and just listen.”

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This story includes reporting from KQED's Holly McDede, Matthew Green and The Associated Press.

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