RIVERSIDE, Mo. (AP) — A northwest Missouri school district faced a massive disruption after four freshmen students posted a “petition” that suggested restarting slavery, district officials said in a response to a federal lawsuit filed by the students’ parents.

One student at Park Hill South High School was expelled and three others were suspended for 180 days after the petition was posted on social media in September 2021.

In their federal lawsuit against the district, the students’ parents contend the petition began as “bantering” between freshmen football players — some of whom are biracial or Black — on a team bus. They contend the district overreacted to the incident and violated the students’ free speech and due process rights by removing them from school, The Kansas City Star reported Wednesday.

In its response to the lawsuit, the district said it spent hundreds of hours counseling upset students and parents after the incident attracted national attention. The controversy delayed the district’s efforts to promote diversity and inclusion, took time away from teachers’ professional development and caused substitute teachers to refuse assignments at Park Hill South, according to the court records.

Then-Superintendent Jeanette Cowherd said the petition “resulted in the most disruption she has experienced in her nearly 40 years in public education,” according to the court filing.

The district asked the judge to deny the parents’ request for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction that would allow the four students to return to school.