Black, straight-A student was in ‘racially hostile environment’ at Iowa school

The repeated racial harassment of a Black, straight-A student at an Ottumwa middle school was not adequately addressed by the school district and might have led to the student’s diminished academic performance, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The department on Monday outlined the findings of its investigation into the Ottumwa Community School District’s handling of multiple harassment complaints during the past two school years. The department’s Office for Civil Rights concluded that “district students subjected a Black middle school student to racial harassment so pervasive that it constituted a racially hostile environment and that the district failed to take necessary steps to protect the student,” the department said Monday.

The department determined that the district violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination at public schools.

A letter the department sent to the school district detailed numerous instances of harassment from five different students, at least four of whom were white. They included:

— The repeated use of racial slurs such as the N-word, slave, blackie and cotton picker.
— Taunting the Black student with monkey noises.
— Students mocking Black Power by raising their fists during class.
— A student referred to KKK — most often the acronym for the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan — as the “Kool Kids Klub.”
— A student knelt on a bottle that contained a dark-colored fluid and said, “It can’t breathe,” to mimic the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
— One student allegedly said, “I can send you back to the cotton fields,” and thanked the Black student for his cotton shirt.

The department’s letter that was released publicly was heavily redacted to remove specific dates, names and other information. The investigation was spurred by the complaint of someone who is associated with the student. Their relationship was not disclosed in the letter.

An inadequate response

An Ottumwa teacher at Evans Middle School was among the first to address the harassment in 2020 and said she would speak to an unspecified number of students individually and further supply a list of the “alleged bullying students” to an assistant principal, according to the department.

As the harassment continued, the school’s principal — who was not identified by name in the department’s letter — suggested “restorative circle” discussions in which classes participated “to repair harm, educate, build community and reflect on the topic of race.”

The script that was developed to help guide those discussions did not specifically address racially offensive language — including the N-word — and didn’t say racial harassment was prohibited, the department reported.

Despite the discussions, the use of the N-word against the Black student became more frequent as the school year went on, but the student did not report it “because he did not want to be known as a ‘snitch’ or a ‘rat’ by other students and because he did not believe that the school would do anything in response to such a report,” the department’s letter said.

In 2021, the Iowa Department of Education received complaints regarding harassment of the student and contacted the school district. However, the state department “indicated that it would not investigate the incidents but would be available as a resource for the district.”

A spokesperson for the state education department did not immediately respond to a request for information about what might trigger an investigation into racial harassment complaints.

Among the new allegations was the mimicking of George Floyd’s murder by kneeling on a bottle that contained dark liquid. The principal investigated the incident but concluded it wasn’t racial harassment because it wasn’t part of a “current pattern of behavior,” the federal department said. The student received in-school lunch detention for an unspecified number of days.

Two students who were shown to have repeatedly harassed the Black student were punished with out-of-school suspensions.

After several in-school investigations in early 2021, the district told the students to stay at least 10 feet apart and altered the accused students’ classes and lunch to help prevent contact. The district allegedly denied a request for a no-contact order to fully prevent communication between the Black student and the others.

The use of racial pejoratives allegedly continued into 2022, when the Black student received his first B grades in classes. All of his previous grades had been As, according to the person associated with the student.

The fallout

The U.S. Department of Education reached an agreement with the school district to resolve the civil rights complaint against it. The district has agreed to pay for the Black student’s past and future therapy that is the result of the harassment.

The district also agreed to take steps to prevent future harassment by publishing an anti-harassment statement, revising policies, training employees and educating students.

There are no pending lawsuits in state or federal court against the school district for the harassment, according to publicly available court records.

The department’s Monday letter noted that the person who had spurred its investigation could file a lawsuit in federal court regardless of its findings.

There are rules that govern lawsuits in state court that are based on violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act. Potential litigants must obtain a right-to-sue letter from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission after filing a complaint with the commission.

It’s possible for there to be concurrent investigations into the Ottumwa district by the commission and by the U.S. Department of Education, said Kaitlin Smith, a spokesperson for the commission. However, Smith could not say whether the commission is investigating a complaint against the district because they are generally confidential.

School and state records indicate Aaron Ruff started as principal at Evans Middle School in 2020 but is now the principal of one of the district’s elementary schools. Ruff did not respond to a request for comment.

A district spokesperson did not respond to a request for the dates of Ruff’s tenure as principal at the middle school. The district announced in February 2022 its choice for interim principal for this school year.

“We will continue to focus on equity for every student by expanding how we gather student voices, reviewing our policies and procedures, and ensuring stakeholders know how to report issues of harassment that could occur in our schools,” said Mike McGrory, the district’s superintendent, in a press release that addressed the agreement with the U.S. Department of Education. “In the weeks to come, we will continue to review and train our staff on how to better identify issues of harassment and how to build a safe, supportive and collaborative culture.”

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