Black Iowa students forced to sit in back of bus after dispute on band trip: lawsuit
Photo by Elijah Ekdahl on Unsplash

Three Black Waukee high school students were told to ride home from a 2021 band trip in the back of a school bus after a white parent chaperone allegedly instigated an altercation with them that turned physical, according to a recently filed lawsuit and other documents.

The incident with the Northwest High School students followed a September 2021 marching band competition in Omaha, Nebraska, according to a letter penned by the attorney of one student who is suing the school district.

The letter — sent to the district’s superintendent in December 2021 — alleges the parent volunteer was perturbed that the students had gone to the bus before the competition’s awards ceremony had concluded because it was “disgraceful to their teammates.”

However, the students had gathered with two white students on the bus with the permission of the school’s band director and instrumental music teacher, the letter said. The students were members of the band’s color guard.

The parent volunteer told the students to get off the bus, dismissed the white students from the conversation, and, along with another white parent who joined a bit later, confronted the remaining Black students.

When one of the students attempted to leave the conversation to find the band director, one of the parents allegedly grabbed him by the arm to prevent his departure. That led to a heated exchange between the now-former student who filed the lawsuit — Bailey Hilson, then a high school senior — and the parent who had allegedly grabbed the other student.

The parent “responded by ‘getting in the face’ of Bailey, shouting at her, and thumping her in the forehead with her finger,” wrote Jerry Foxhoven, the Des Moines attorney who represents Hilson.

The parent could not be reached to comment for this article, but an investigative report produced by the school district said the woman denied touching the students.

The woman admitted to waving a finger in Hilson’s face, the report said. She alleged Hilson was using profanity and saying hateful things.

The band instructor and instrumental music teacher intervened a short time later, and the Black students asked to be moved from the bus for the ride back to Waukee because the parent volunteers would be on it.

“This mature and reasonable request was denied, and the three Black students were instructed to ‘sit in the back of the bus’ and not interact with the adults on the way home,” Foxhoven wrote. “This direction … created a pathetic scene reminiscent of our nation’s history of segregation in public transportation. The students, left with no other choice, followed instructions.”

A ‘sham’ investigation

The lawsuit alleges that a school district investigation into the incident was too focused on the students’ conduct and that the district’s actions thereafter did not adequately address — and perhaps exacerbated — the emotional distress of Hilson.

Assistant Principal Christie Pitts conducted the investigation and concluded that the parent volunteer had grabbed or touched two students, and someone at the district notified the Waukee Police Department of the alleged physical contact.

The woman was barred from volunteering at the high school and from attending at least one home football game, according to Foxhoven’s letter. The district further pledged to have a “restorative conversation” with the students and to reevaluate the requirements for its parent volunteers. It sent a message to band students and their families that said “the students involved were not at fault.”

“We regret the breakdown in the system that led to this event,” said the message, which was signed by the school’s two band directors. “You can be assured that we are taking proactive steps with administration to help ensure that such an incident does not happen again.”

Amy Varcoe, a spokesperson for the school district, declined to comment specifically on the allegations contained in the lawsuit but said the district “strongly denies” them.

“Waukee Community School District maintains a strong commitment to a safe and collaborative environment for all students,” she said.

It’s unclear whether the police department investigated the incident. The department did not immediately respond to a request for information about a potential investigation, nor does it have jurisdiction over an alleged assault that might have been committed in another state.

The school district investigation’s findings largely align with the timeline of events that are detailed in Foxhoven’s letter. A video surveillance recording from the bus showed that one of the white students who was allowed to leave at the start of the altercation had only been briefly on the bus. The other white student who was dismissed from the altercation had been with the Black students for the duration of their time on the bus, the investigative report said.

That white student called the parent volunteers “racist bigots” on the bus ride back to Waukee, the report said.

The lawsuit called the school district investigation a sham, in part, because it ignored the potential racial aspects of the incident. It further claimed that the district gave improper support to the parent volunteers by investigating a bullying complaint one of them subsequently made against Hilson.

A school investigation into that complaint found that there was an ongoing “substantial student conflict” between the volunteer’s child and Hilson as a result of the band trip, Foxhoven’s letter said.

The lawsuit was filed last month after Hilson lodged a complaint against the district with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission in July.

The commission issued Hilson a right-to-sue letter in September, which is required for lawsuits in state district court that allege violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act.

The lawsuit names the school district, Superintendent Brad Buck and former Principal Fairouz Bishara-Rantisi as defendants, but not the parent volunteers. It seeks an unspecified amount of money to compensate Hilson for her suffering that resulted from the district’s alleged racial discrimination and a reimbursement for attorneys’ fees.

The lawsuit says Hilson “suffered severe emotional distress, causing her to miss school, struggle with depression and feel isolated and unsupported at school, causing her to miss the true joy normally experienced by a student in their senior year of high school.”

The school district has yet to file a response to the lawsuit in district court. There are no other pending lawsuits from the other students against the district, according to state and federal court records.

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