Parents in persistently mismanaged Marlin Independent School District are fighting back after a state senator’s law firm threatened two moms with a defamation lawsuit for publicly complaining about the district.

Marlin ISD mothers Monica Johnson and Brandolyn Jones filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing the district, its superintendent, and the ISD police chief of attempting to intimidate their families into silence and deter others from speaking up.

The moms began complaining last year when Marlin ISD Superintendent Darryl Henson changed their high-achieving children’s grades and class rankings after the 2023 school year ended, adversely impacting the students’ college plans.

Henson also postponed the district’s graduation ceremony at the last minute, saying only five high school seniors were eligible to graduate.

Starting in June, Johnson and Jones filed grievances with the district about Henson changing grading and class rank policies retroactively just before graduation.

They also publicly complained at parent meetings and on social media.

Supported by Texas Education 911, a grassroots group that advocates for parental rights in public education, Jones also sought help from state legislators—including State Sen. Royce West (D–Dallas), who is a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Ten days later, West’s law firm sent letters to Jones and Johnson on behalf of the district instructing the moms to “IMMEDIATELY CEASE AND DESIST from publishing any additional defamatory statements against Marlin ISD and Dr. Henson” on social media.

Parental rights attorney Janelle Davis filed the lawsuit against the district on behalf of the moms and their families.

“The ‘cease and desist’ letter is yet another attempt by Marlin ISD and Henson to muzzle the parents’ First Amendment right to free speech,” said Davis. “The fact that it was sent by Sen. West’s firm only adds to the parents’ concerns.”

“These parents say their children were prepared to graduate and that Henson improperly changed their grades and class rank after the school year ended,” she said. “When they publicly spoke about these issues, they and their children were retaliated against. Johnson was wrongfully criminal trespassed from all Marlin ISD property for 1 year. When she filed a grievance, the trespass was lifted. Jones’s husband received a call from the former Mayor of Marlin who told him that Henson was going to sue for defamation after Jones filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency.”

The families are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

“We need a whole new administration,” said Johnson during an interview with Texas Education 911.

“Dr. Henson has such control over the board,” added Jones. “That’s where an inspector general will come in very handy, when you have a rogue superintendent.”

Marlin ISD is located southeast of Waco in Falls County and has three schools serving fewer than 1,000 students; 99 percent are economically disadvantaged.

The district has been governed by a state-appointed board of managers since 2017 due to multiple consecutive years of unacceptable academic accountability ratings.

Data from 2022 shows only 28 percent of Marlin ISD students met or exceeded grade level across all subjects—20 percentage points below the state average of 48 percent. In 2023, that number fell to 25 percent. Henson’s taxpayer-funded superintendent salary as of October 2022 was $235,000.

Earlier this month, the Texas Education Agency announced that the district will begin transitioning back to governance by an elected board of trustees.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said the district has made “substantial improvements in both academics and governance.”

Davis said the actions of district officials under Henson’s leadership show that is not true.

“Parents across the state simply want accountability from their school district when a mistake is made,” said Davis. “Unfortunately, the actions of Marlin ISD and its Superintendent are what they typically receive instead—denial of wrongdoing, retaliation for speaking out, and then attempts to silence.”

Erin Anderson

Erin Anderson is a Senior Journalist for Texas Scorecard, reporting on state and local issues, events, and government actions that impact people in communities throughout Texas and the DFW Metroplex. A native Texan, Erin grew up in the Houston area and now lives in Collin County.