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Parents say a Duluth charter school ignored a racially hostile environment for years

A suit brought by three parents against Duluth Edison Charter Schools details a long history of mistreatment of Black students.

Data collected from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights show that in the 2017-2018 school year, Black students at DCES Raleigh were over 2 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension, while Black students at DCES North Star, above, were over 5 times more likely.
Data collected from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights show that in the 2017-2018 school year, Black students at DCES Raleigh were over 2 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension, while Black students at DCES North Star, above, were over 5 times more likely.
Innovative Quality Schools

Katelyn Hansen happened to be waiting at the front office at Duluth Edison Charter Schools’ (DECS) Raleigh Academy when she says she saw a teacher forcefully pulling her ten-year old daughter down the hallway.

Hansen, who had come to pick her children up from school, was instead confronted with a scenario that confirmed what she had long suspected. As a white woman, Hansen wasn’t sure if her children, who are half Black, were being subjected to racist and discriminatory behavior by other students and staff. How could she recognize with certainty something she hasn’t experienced, she wondered.

But what unfolded was what Hansen described as a recurring scenario — her daughter being punished for standing up to racist harassment and slurs from her white classmates. The teacher claimed that Hansen’s daughter needed to be disciplined for bullying another student. Hansen’s daughter, the teacher said, had told the student that they looked like a toilet. What the teacher had failed to mention was that the other student had first told Hansen’s daughter that her skin resembled “poop in a toilet.”

It wasn’t the first time that her daughter’s teachers had turned a blind eye toward racial harassment. In another incident, one student had spit on Hansen’s daughter to the point she needed to change her shirt. Rather than punishing the student who had spit on her, the teacher told Hansen’s daughter to make sure to leave the other student alone when he was angry.

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“The school really didn’t adequately address the issues and instead many times targeted her as an aggressor and made it out as if she was the one doing something wrong,” Hansen said.

Hansen’s daughter isn’t alone in her experience. She is one of four students whose families filed a lawsuit in 2019 against Duluth Edison Charter schools, a public K-8 charter school located in Duluth with two branches, Raleigh Academy and North Star Academy. The suit alleges that the school officials ignored a racist environment and disproportionately punished Black students. DECS denies all the allegations, and has asked a judge to dismiss the suit.

History of incidents

While Hansen settled over the summer, the other three families remain in litigation with the school. Early last month, the National Women’s Law Center filed an amicus brief cosigned by 32 additional civil rights and public interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, urging the court to allow the case to continue after attorneys for DECS requested to have the case dismissed.

“They’ve had a problem with race harassment that has gone on for years and years as far back as the 2014-2015 school year, and they’ve known they’ve had a problem,” said Rebekah Bailey, the attorney representing the families. “And this case has revealed the ongoing issues — racial taunting, and an obscene amount of use of the N-word and other types of race harassment.”

Details from the lawsuit paint a picture of frequent verbal and physical harassment towards Black students and other students of color, that sometimes also lead to assault. Incidents reported include a student having his dreadlocks cut by a teacher without consent and of another student being punched in the ribs on the school bus. Another exhibit in the case discloses numerous emails between the years 2014 and 2019, from parents, staff, and other concerned parties alleging students had used the N-word, with some emails suggesting that use of the slur extended beyond students.

Other incidents detailed in the case echo the experience of Hansen’s daughter, where Black students are immediately assumed to be the aggressor in an altercation.

One example of this highlighted is with a student referred to as K.R. in the lawsuit — a first grader who is biracial and appears Black and who the lawsuit alleges was physically reprimanded by his teacher.

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Bailey says that K.R. was in the middle of a disagreement with a white classmate, when the student grabbed a card K.R. made for his mother out of his hands. When K.R. tried to grab the card back, the teacher scolded him.

She grabbed his chin and told him, ‘Does it look like she likes you doing that? You better fix that child,’ He got in trouble and the other student didn’t,” Bailey said.  “That’s just one example of the racially discriminatory treatment that my clients and other students have had at the hands of Duluth Edison faculty and staff.”

Duluth Edison Charter Schools’ Raleigh Academy
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Duluth Edison Charter Schools’ Raleigh Academy
Data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights show that in the 2017-2018 school year, Black students at DCES Raleigh were over 2 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension, while Black students at DCES North Star were over 5 times more likely. And according to data reported by the Minnesota Department of Education for that same school year, Black students received some form of a disciplinary action 219 times out of 804 total disciplinary actions, while students of two or more races received 163 disciplinary actions. According to data from the Office of Civil Rights, Black students account for 4 percent of the nearly 1300 student population of the two schools, while students of two or more races constitute 11 percent.

Hansen said that she and other parents sought help from the former Black Cultural Liaison, Chrystal Gardner. Gardner had settled her own lawsuit with school for discrimination and for wrongful termination earlier this year. According to details from the students’ lawsuit, during both the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years, Gardner confronted administration about what she perceived as rampant discrimination against Black students and other students of color.

In June 2018, Gardner was fired after members of administration accused her of both encouraging students to look for biases and for organizing a student-led protest held against the racial injustices both schools were accused of ignoring.

Gardner could not discuss the details of her tenure at the school due to conditions of her settlement. But she did say: “At the time, as the only black educator at DECS, I was passionate to provide support, resources, educational tools, and concepts from a cultural perspective.  My decision to shed light on the mistreatment, biases and racial incidents sustained by black students, was received with criticism and resistance.  Racial inequities for students of color are continuous in many schools, and now parents and individuals like me are compelled to right such egregious acts.”

Families of charter school students have little recourse for addressing civil rights grievances, or specifically violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. (Title VI prohibits recipients of federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.) The Minnesota Department of Education does not have the jurisdiction over charter or district schools to address complaints, with much of the authority over charter schools residing with their authorizer. Even then, many authorizers provide little transparency on what their process is for holding schools accountable for violating Title VI. While complaints are handled by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, investigations can often take years. For families seeking a quicker resolution, the courts are often the only solution. (DCES’ authorizer, Innovative Quality Schools, could not be reached for comment. IQS has authorized 27 schools across the state.)

In a statement to MinnPost, Tammy Rackliffe, the interim head of schools said she could not comment on specific allegations since the lawsuit is ongoing, but denied the allegations overall. “There is nothing more important to Duluth Edison Charter Schools than the well-being of the students we educate every day. Duluth Edison Charter Schools has welcomed a diverse community of learners for nearly 25 years. Throughout that time, we have remained committed to creating a respectful, inclusive and safe learning environment for students, staff and our families,” she said.

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Lasting consequences

Hansen and Bailey both maintain that parents are not pursuing the lawsuit for monetary compensation, but are seeking systemic change within the schools.

“I wanted change for my daughter but by then it was too late. But then I stayed in it for change for other kids whose parents don’t have a voice and maybe the kids don’t know how to tell their parents what’s going on,” Hansen said.

While at Duluth Edison, Hansen’s daughter received two suspensions within months of each other and was sometimes written up multiple times a week. Now, three years after enrolling in a new school, Hansen said her daughter has a clean disciplinary record.

Still, she says, her daughter has been diagnosed with lingering symptoms similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from expriencing racial discrimination and remains noticeably changed. Where she was once sociable and outgoing Hansen said she is now withdrawn. Where she once aspired to be a doctor, Hansen says she now is disinterested in school due to anxiety.

“She still has fear. She automatically gets scared that teachers are going to target her because she’s Black, and she’s scared that if she says anything that is going to go back on her,” Hansen said.

The case is currently in the summary judgement stage with both sides making their argument for why the case should either go to trial or be dismissed.

The families in this case, their hope has always been to shed light on a large systemic problem at Duluth Edison so that change can happen. They just want all children at this charter school to be treated fairly,” said Bailey. “They tried really hard and long to fix these problems informally, and that just wasn’t leading to change.”