Students Repeatedly Posed in Blackface and Threatened Black Classmates. Their School Ignored, Lawsuit Alleges.

By olivia.messer@thedailybeast.com (Olivia Messer)
Star Tribune via Getty Images

Some white students at Chaska High School in Minnesota ended last school year the same way they began it: In photos, wearing blackface.

The academic year in the 28,000-person suburb began in September 2018 with white students attending a football game in blackface, and, in one student’s case, an afro. In December, a middle school student in the same district—located roughly 30 miles southwest of Minneapolis—found that his gym shirt had been stolen, vandalized with the n-word, and returned to his locker. In February 2019, two white students in the district put on charcoal face masks and put the photos on social media with the hashtag: #blackface.

That same month, another student allegedly posted on Snapchat, holding a gun, and threatened to shoot a list of students if they attended a Chaska High School assembly on race relations. In April, white students posted an image on Snapchat with the faces of 25 African-American students, calling the location “Negro Hill.”

The lede on a local news story in April began: “Chaska, it happened again. Another racially charged incident in Eastern Carver County Public Schools.”

And by the time a photo of a student wearing blackface appeared in the yearbook in May, the response from parents on the newly created Equity Task Force was: “Not again, are you serious? The same exact issue of blackface again?”

On Tuesday, they’d had enough.

Six current and former students from the district filed a 50-page civil-rights lawsuit in federal court against Independent School District 112, also known as Eastern Carver County Schools, claiming that teachers and administrators demonstrated “deliberate indifference” and failed to take “any meaningful action” in response to repeated complaints of racist bullying. 

The school district “turned a blind eye” to black students who were called the n-word, “monkey,” told they “don’t belong,” and threatened with physical violence, the lawsuit claims.

“School staff have little, if any, proper training or experience with respect to properly responding to reports of racism,” according to the complaint, which alleges that “often times, complaints of discrimination are simply met by silence.”

Students of color were even prohibited from posting “Black Lives Matter” signs and materials featuring African-American leaders during Black History Month, the lawsuit states.

Four of the six students in the lawsuit relocated from the district as a direct result of the racism they experienced over the past few years, according to the lawsuit.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune first reported the legal action, which followed months of pressure from parents in the school district, where only 3 percent of students are black, per data from the Office of Civil Rights.

Amanda Flowers Peterson told the Star-Tribune last month that her 6-year-old son was punched in the face—twice—by a classmate and “told he doesn’t belong.” Administrators declined to call the incident racially motivated, she said. 

Peterson and her husband are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which says that they removed their son from the district after repeated concerns about neglect—including an incident where he was allegedly left unsupervised for 45 minutes after he was sent home on the wrong bus and another where he was sent outside for recess for 20 minutes in 23-degree weather with no coat on.

Schools officials called Amanda Peterson, who is black, “too aggressive” when she complained, the lawsuit states. In May 2019, a substitute teacher with the district “contacted Ms. Peterson’s employer and demanded she be fired” over her advocacy efforts to correct the racism that had systematically affected the district, according to the lawsuit. 

The six students are seeking a jury trial to determine damages in excess of $75,000 over the mental anguish and emotional distress caused by the racism at the school district.

“At some point, enough is enough,” attorney Anna Prakash, who represents some of the families, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.

“Our public schools are supposed to respect and keep children safe while creating an educational environment in which they can thrive. That didn’t happen for African-American students in Chaska,” said Prakash.

“Our clients tried and continue to try to get help from the administration,” said Prakash, “But, with all they have experienced and because meaningful change has not happened, they filed this lawsuit.” 

“It is a pervasive problem and it goes back years,” she added. “These students and their parents are incredibly brave.”

Prakash said none of the families involved in the lawsuit were available to comment to The Daily Beast by press time.

‘LEAVE NOW’

The allegations in the lawsuit involve students as young as six and up through seniors in high school who are now adults.

A former student at Chaska Middle School East, identified in the lawsuit only by “T.B.,” recalled that white students at his school kicked him in the knees and called him “monkey,” sometimes even writing the word on his school folders and placing a picture of a monkey on his desk. 

White students allegedly smashed T.B.’s computer, told him that he stinks, and repeatedly told him that his dad “is a drug dealer or rapper, saying that is what all black dads are,” according to the lawsuit.

In December, students took T.B.’s gym shirt out of his locker and wrote the n-word on it, along with “leave now.” Since T.B. was “worried about the cost of a new T-shirt, he put the T-shirt on and put a sweatshirt over it,” the lawsuit states.

When he reported the vandalism to the school’s assistant principal, he was given a new shirt and an email was sent to his mother, which spelled out the slur. “It was very vague, very cold and no apology or how they were going to handle it going forward other than we got him a new T-shirt,” T.B.’s mother said in a local news interview.

“The city... looks at kids of color differently than kids that walk around with white skin,” she said. “I don’t think their staff is equipped at the school to handle it or know how in the right way. And I think they’d rather just keep pushing it under the rug.”

T.B.’s parents pulled him and his siblings out of the district. 

Jquan Fuller-Rueschman, a former Chaska High student who left the school midway through his senior year, said in the lawsuit that he was punched in the face by a white student, repeatedly called the n-word, accused of being stupid and dumb, had food thrown at him, and had his car egged. He was labeled “aggressive” and suspended after confronting a student who repeatedly called him the n-word, the complaint states.

When he was on the football team in October 2016, Jquan said he was threatened by a white teammate who said he would “bring a gun to shoot you.” The coach allegedly responded by noting that “all of the drama seems to involve you.”

Even after he left the school in September 2018, Jquan’s was one of the 25 student faces superimposed on the Google map labeled “Negro Hill” by white Chaska students, the lawsuit contends.

“They don’t like black people,” then-sophomore Darius Stewart, whose face was also on the map, told a local news station. “They want us gone. I mean, I am hopeful but I don’t think racism is going to stop.”

Several current and former high school students in the lawsuit expressed that they felt “unwelcome” and unsafe attending school. One former student was hospitalized last school year over severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, which she linked to racism at school.

After the yearbook printed the photo of a student in blackface, Assistant Principal Jim Swearingen said in a letter to the school community claiming that administrators had “talked” about “the racist history behind wearing blackface.”

But Tonya Coleman, one of the parents who filed suit on Tuesday, disagreed with Swearingen’s interpretation of events. “They haven’t had any dialogue about it all, according to many, many parents,” she told the Star-Tribune in the spring.

Swearingen’s letter said that school officials discovered the image after the book was printed but before it was distributed and that the administration does not “condone the ridicule or demeaning of humans, particularly our own students” and apologized for the “delay in our yearbook distribution.”

In April, concerned parents in the district formed a group called Residents Organizing Against Racism (ROAR) and created a petition for the removal of Chaska High School’s principal. The petition, which was signed by more than 700 people, also called for a zero-tolerance anti-racism policy and significant changes to the curriculum. 

Utah State Student Killed Herself After Eight Months of Racist Attacks—and the School Did Nothing, Suit Claims

Jenna Cruz, a 34-year-old mother of three biracial kids in Chaska, who is part of ROAR, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that the district’s responses have failed to even use the word “racism.”

“It’s labelled as bullying and inappropriate behavior,” said Cruz, who has two elementary-school-aged children. ROAR currently has about 126 parents and community members who are helping organize, she added.

Cruz said that her children have not yet been directly affected by the incidents named in the lawsuit.

“I don’t want them to experience this,” she said. “I can’t sit back and do nothing and watch kids just be harmed by going to school. Whether it’s my kid or someone else’s.”

“We can’t hold the school accountable for the students’ actions, but the school is responsible for their reaction to it, and how they communicate that to parents,” she added. “The significance of not relaying this information to parents so that they can protect their children is negligence. There’s no grey area in this.”

“There’s been a shift in the climate in the last two years, and there’s been this emboldened voice for people acting like this is OK,” said Cruz. “I’m not shocked, but what was shocking is the lack of appropriate response from the administrators.” 

“There’s a large [group] that stands in solidarity with the brave parents and students that are doing this lawsuit,” said Cruz. “They made the decision to do what’s right.”

Last month, ROAR invited Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to speak to the community. 

“I have read about some things I find deeply disturbing,” Ellison, who is black, said at the 90-minute meeting on August 20, cautioning the 30 parents in attendance not to give up on “any of these knuckleheads.”

“Speak up even if your voice quivers,” he said to the crowd. “Don’t let the ugly ideas soak into the soil.”

The district declined to comment on specific litigation to The Daily Beast but forwarded an open letter that Superintendent Clint Christopher wrote to Ellison on Aug. 26, after his visit, which claimed that the school board and district staff “are committed to an educational environment where all students feel safe, welcome, and included, and have the tools and resources to succeed.”

“We have not yet realized that for every student, and have been working in earnest to move the needle and improve outcomes for every child that walks through our doors,” Christopher said.

Christopher’s letter noted that the district hired a new director of equity and inclusion this summer, that 40 district and building administrative leaders have in recent months participated in more than two days of training based on the University of Minnesota’s Urban Leadership Academy, and that the district has formed an Equity Advisory Council of parents and community members. 

The district also hired a “nationally-recognized researcher” to conduct an audit of “our policies, practices, and performance data using an equity lens,” which will conclude this month, he said. 

“This is important work, it’s the right work, and we are all committed to doing better for each student,” said Christopher. “They’re the reason we’re here.”

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