Duluth Edison Charter Schools is facing a lawsuit as three families with students of color are alleging racial discrimination on the part of students, staff and administration, as well as allowing systemic racism to continually occur.

Filed last month, the lawsuit alleges the three students have experienced racist, unfair, hurtful and, at times, dangerous interactions at Duluth Edison with staff and students. The lawsuit also claims Duluth Edison treats black students differently than their white peers.

The lawsuit claims when the parents of these students brought up the issue of racial discrimination to administrators, they were often ignored or retaliated against - either their children were punished or social services was called by the school.

"The families candidly would have rather avoided a lawsuit. Nobody wants to be involved in a lawsuit, especially one that gets public attention," said Rebekah Bailey, an attorney for the families. "But the families were at a loss of what to do with the problems they were facing. All they ever wanted was for their children to be treated fairly at school."

Bailey, as well as the lawsuit, said the families have tried to remedy the situation for years through emails with administration, phone calls, meetings and even once through an internal investigation, which resulted in a child being suspended a second time for the same incident.

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"The families are just really hoping to remedy these problems for their children specifically, of course, but also for the other students at Duluth Edison," Bailey said.

Bonnie Jorgenson, head of schools for Duluth Edison, said in a statement to the News Tribune that "while the school cannot comment about specific allegations made in the complaint that has been brought against it, the school strongly denies any allegations of discriminatory conduct."

"The school will vigorously defend itself against these allegations," Jorgenson wrote. "There is nothing more important to Duluth Edison Charter Schools than the well-being of the students that we educate every day."

The same statement was sent to Duluth Edison parents on Friday.

The allegations

The lawsuit describes specific instances of racial discrimination on the part of students and staff. In multiple instances, white students are accused of repeatedly directing racial slurs toward black students without punishment. In one instance, one of the students was told they "look like a monkey" by another student, and in another, they were told they "looked like what's inside a toilet."

The lawsuit claims the white students were never punished for these offenses and that when the black students responded to the harassment or bullying, they were often given a referral or even suspended.

"This is not just about one young kid being inappropriate or mean to another young kid. The troublesome behavior keeps going after that," Bailey said. "We are talking about the failure of the school to take this seriously or to treat kids fairly or retaliate against African American students who complain too much about the way they are treated. I would say that's the crux of the problem here is the school's response to this behavior."

According to the lawsuit, the conduct at the school got so bad that one of the students threatened suicide and told a parent that they "did not want to be black anymore."

That student was pulled from Duluth Edison this school year and is currently attending the Duluth school district where, according to the lawsuit, the student is thriving and loves the teacher "because she looks in the eyes of black kids just like she does the caucasian kids."

The other two students currently attend Duluth Edison schools. When asked why the two students are still at Duluth Edison, Bailey said the remedy for racial discrimination or racism is not to have the students move.

"I think the remedy is to fix the schools so that every public or charter school in Minnesota provides a safe learning environment for all students," she said. "Unfortunately, however, you are seeing that happening, that African American students are leaving because they are unable to remedy the problems that they are facing."

Bailey said the families hope to shed light on these problems with the lawsuit and show that these aren't isolated issues or incidents.

"In this case, we've had to have parents explain to their elementary school-aged kids what racism means or what the N-word means, and it's just heartbreaking that they've had to learn about these words because a white peer at school called them that word or used that word toward them," Bailey said.

Duluth Edison policy

Jorgenson said Duluth Edison has policies in place to handle situations that may be considered racial discrimination by students and teachers.

"The Duluth Public Schools Academy Board, the governing board for (Duluth Edison), has formally adopted multiple formal policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment, violence and bullying and detailing procedures for investigating and responding to allegations of the same," she said.

Those policies prohibit bullying of any kind. If a complaint is made, the policies say the school district will investigate the complaints and "discipline or take appropriate action against any student who is found to have violated" the policy.

The policies also state that concerns or reports of harassment, bullying, cyberbullying or intimidation between students should be made to the dean of students and an investigation will be initiated within three school days and be completed within 10 school days.

The school's policy states that violations of using abusive or inappropriate language, bullying, and racial or religious harassment will result in a student conference and notification of parents or guardians for the first offense, up to three days of out-of-school suspension for a second offense and up to five days of out-of-school suspension for a third offense.

Jorgenson also said Duluth Edison has built-in time in its "home bases," or homeroom, to have discussions with students about issues, including racism.

"We have home base twice a week on average. We have activities about growth mindset, career planning, cultural awareness and social-emotional learning as well as opportunities for students to bring up topics for discussion," Jorgenson said.

She also said Duluth Edison currently has two cultural liaisons - African American and Native American - who have lunch meetings with groups of students and who are also available to students for other concerns.

The lawsuit states the families relied on Chrystal Gardner, the former African American liaison, to be their voice in the school district and also as a person their students could confide in. The lawsuit claims Gardner brought the issue of white students calling black students racial slurs to Jorgenson multiple times, but the behavior was never addressed.

In June 2018, Gardner was terminated and the families were devastated that she was not allowed to return to school, as she was their advocate, the lawsuit claims. A new liaison was hired in October, but is not as effective or sympathetic to the issues the students are facing, the lawsuit alleges.

The lawsuit is asking for the court to issue a permanent injunction that directs Duluth Edison to comply with federal and state law; leave to add additional plaintiffs or claims by motion or any other method approved by the court; and monetary relief in an amount to be determined at trial, but not less than $75,000. Duluth Edison has until Tuesday to file its response to the lawsuit with the court.