A hurt that runs deep: Former Duluth Edison parent, liaison claim racial bias at school
“It really breaks my heart because while all the other kids are dreaming of their life, he was dreaming of equality,” Kali Proctor said.
Kali Proctor never imagined when she sent her son off to kindergarten at Raleigh Academy, a Duluth Edison Charter School, he would come home one day and tell his mom he didn’t want to be black anymore.
“I don’t think that’s something that any parent is prepared for. I don’t think that you can prepare for that,” Proctor said. “The first thing that I did was ask what can I do better? What am I doing wrong?”
That mentality continued throughout kindergarten, Proctor said during an interview with the News Tribune. She said there were good days where he would come home happy and then there were the bad days where he would come home and ask things such as why he wasn’t born white.
On the last day of kindergarten, Proctor’s son and his classmates were asked to draw a picture and finish the sentence “My dream is.” Proctor’s son wrote, “My dream is everyone lives the same” and he drew two black stick figures holding hands and reaching out to a white stick figure.
“It really breaks my heart because while all the other kids are dreaming of their life, he was dreaming of equality,” Proctor said.
Proctor said he finished out kindergarten at Raleigh Academy, had a great summer and then started first grade there.
“I would say that’s when things intensified,” Proctor said.
Proctor said her son has told her he felt like he was treated the worst by his first-grade teacher just because he was black. It was in first grade that her son made the comment that he wanted to kill himself and that he had a plan.
Proctor is one of four parents who have filed a lawsuit against Duluth Edison alleging racial discrimination and violations of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In regard to the lawsuit filed, Duluth Edison’s head of school Bonnie Jorgenson has repeatedly said “the school strongly denies any allegations of discriminatory conduct” and that the school “will vigorously defend itself against these allegations.”
Proctor, through the lawsuit she filed, claims she tried to work with the school district through concerns she had regarding the racial discrimination her son was feeling while at school.
“I wasn’t feeling that my voice was heard,” Proctor said. “They have policies and procedures in place, but I felt they really weren’t following through with what was being said.”
Those policies and procedures were the reason Proctor said she chose Duluth Edison in the first place. Proctor, who has been a social worker for about 15 years, said she put a lot of time and consideration into deciding where to send her son and did her research.
“I attended the Raleigh orientation the year prior to my son starting kindergarten and got more information and learned about the organizational structure and how charter schools differ from conventional public education,” Proctor said. “I was captivated by the school's presentation of innovative educational approaches focusing on social-emotional development as well as learning and educational advancement.”
Proctor said she was confident that Duluth Edison’s core values — respect, responsibility, compassion, justice, courage, integrity, hope and wisdom — would work out the best for her son.
“These core values that brought us to Duluth Edison were the exact reasons we chose to leave due to not being respected or upheld for all students,” Proctor said.
Proctor pulled her son out of Raleigh Academy in the fall of 2018 and enrolled him in Stowe Elementary School, where she says he is now thriving.
“He’s a very sociable kid. He plays sports, and I get great feedback from his teachers,” Proctor said.
She said one of the many reasons she decided to pull her son from Raleigh Academy was because the then-African-American cultural liaison, Chrystal Gardner, whom her son relied on a lot, was let go in June 2018.
“Chrystal was a safe person for him,” Proctor said. “He would seek her out when he was distressed. The problem being that she wasn’t always there.”
Through her social work, Proctor said she had crossed paths with Gardner. So Proctor reached out to Gardner about her son.
Proctor was able to get her son enrolled in Gardner’s African heritage group, which would meet once a week for about an hour. But once she was gone, Proctor said her son took it very hard and became fearful of school.
“... Ending relationships abruptly is not healthy, and this is the person that he connected with and felt the most secure with, and now she's gone,” Proctor said.
Proctor said she was never told if or when a new African-American liaison was hired or who it would be. According to Jorgenson, a new liaison started with Duluth Edison in October 2018.
“He is available to work with any family that needs assistance navigating any aspect of our schools,” Jorgensen wrote in an email to the News Tribune. “We also have an American Indian cultural liaison who performs the same services for our American Indian families.”
Gardner also recently filed a lawsuit against Duluth Edison claiming wrongful termination, retaliation and discrimination based on race. The lawsuit says Duluth Edison administration retaliated against her for calling out racial discrimination among students, teachers and administration and for asking the schools to make changes.
Jorgenson wrote in an email to the News Tribune that Duluth Edison is committed “to creating a respectful, inclusive and safe learning environment for students, staff and our families.”
“Our schools are dedicated to the academic and personal achievement of every student,” she wrote. “The core values that shape our school community include respect, compassion, justice and integrity. We take seriously any concerns from students, parents and our community that do not reflect those values.”
Jorgenson said Gardner was not terminated but that her employment agreement expired, and she was not offered a contract for the 2018-19 school year.
Gardner said in an interview with the News Tribune that typically staff who will not receive a contract renewal for the upcoming school year are usually notified in the spring before. Gardner said she was notified in June.
“That decision was so abrupt, and I didn't have any notice. So that certainly caught me by surprise,” she said.
Gardner started at Duluth Edison in 2016. She said she originally applied for the American Indian liaison position, but during her interview process, it was announced the former African-American liaison was leaving, so Gardner was offered that position instead.
“Right away, I realized that there was an issue with the N-word being used so loosely at the school,” Gardner said.
She said she was asked to give a presentation to students on how offensive the N-word is as well as the word’s history. Gardner said she was glad to do so, but she said the problem was there were no consequences for students who used it, which her lawsuit also claims.
“A lot of the black students felt like if they even raised this concern, that nothing’s going to happen,” Gardner said. “And I sympathize with them and the parents who were offended as well, especially upon my bringing awareness of how hurtful that term is.”
The lawsuit claims Gardner felt treated differently from her American Indian liaison counterpart by staff and administrators.
“I was subject to such harsh treatment that it kind of made me question, where is progress? Is it possible for Duluth Edison school to have a level of awareness of bias and inequities?” Gardner said.
Gardner said she hopes the lawsuit against Duluth Edison will sway the school to “dig deeper in cultural competency training and implement it.
“If there are not regular conversations, regular work put into removing biases, removing inequities, then you’re just checking off that you did something,” Gardner said.
Duluth Edison has yet to file a response to Gardner’s lawsuit. As for the lawsuit regarding the four families, Duluth Edison has filed a motion to sever the claims for which a hearing is scheduled for Monday.