A fourth family is alleging Duluth Edison Charter Schools allowed racial discrimination on the part of students, staff and administration to repeatedly occur.
The student, who is biracial and was added to the lawsuit Tuesday, attended North Star Academy for kindergarten and was removed at the start of the following year by their parent due to concerns over their safety, the lawsuit claims.
According to the amended complaint filed Tuesday, the student regularly experienced racial harassment and discrimination by white students and staff.
One of the safety concerns stems from an incident in which the biracial student was punched in the ribs by an older white student while riding the bus to school, leaving a visible bruise, court documents said. The father of the biracial student was never contacted by the school about the assault and the white student was never disciplined to the knowledge of the parents, court documents said.
The family of the biracial student also alleges a white student once threatened to stab the student in the eyes with a screwdriver because they looked “different” and that the white student was never disciplined.
The lawsuit also claims the biracial student was physically assaulted on multiple occasions by the same three white students. The assaults included pulling hair, pinching and kicking the victim. The lawsuit claims none of the white students was disciplined, but that the biracial student was given referrals after fighting back.
The father of the biracial student made several complaints to both of the school's deans of students as well as administrator Tammy Rackliffe and head of schools Bonnie Jorgenson with no solutions or acknowledgment given, the lawsuit claims.
The harassment and assaults were so frequent that the student’s father started volunteering in the school during school hours to keep an eye on his child. When he was there, he told his child to reach out to the school’s African American liaison at the time, Chrystal Gardner. Gardner was an advocate for students of color until the summer of 2018 when she was no longer employed by the school.
Many of the students and their families who are part of the lawsuit relied on Gardner and reached out to her when needed, so her departure left the families devastated, the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit also claims that on at least two occasions, the biracial student came home without their undershirt because a teacher took them to the bathroom and made them remove it, claiming it was not part of the school uniform. The student told their father they would “rather be in trouble than go to music class,” the lawsuit claims.
After the family made several complaints to the administration about harassment and physical assaults, the family claims that Duluth Edison retaliated by calling Child Protective Services multiple times.
The amended complaint not only added the new allegations made by the fourth family, but it also claimed two additional counts of retaliation as well as one count of denial of equal protection, race discrimination and failure to train.
When asked for a comment on the new allegations made in the lawsuit, Jorgenson wrote in a statement to the News Tribune that "state and federal laws protecting student privacy prohibit Duluth Edison Charter Schools from responding to the specific allegations set forth in the amended complaint.
“The school continues to strongly deny any allegation of discriminatory conduct, and will continue to vigorously defend itself against these allegations in court,” Jorgenson wrote.
Washington D.C. group joins lawsuit as counsel
Public Justice, a Washington, D.C. litigation group, also joined the lawsuit as co-counsel after an attorney who sits on the group’s foundation board from Nichols Kaster, the primary firm on the case, asked the group to join.
Adele Kimmel, senior attorney at Public Justice, said the group has a long history of legal advocacy on behalf of students battling discrimination, harassment and sexual assault in both K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities. The case against Duluth Edison is a prime example of the type of cases they fight for, Kimmel said.
“What we are seeing is a significant, deep-seated pattern of pervasive race discrimination and harassment in Duluth Edison schools,” she said. “This is a situation that really calls out for lasting improvements in policy, personnel and school cultural issues, and that’s often spurred by legal advocacy. So we thought we could help.”
Kimmel said the families are especially motivated by the opportunity to ensure other students don’t face similar discrimination down the road.
“We see it as an opportunity to further compel school officials to take these issues seriously and to make the systemic changes needed to change the culture in those schools,” Kimmel said.
Litigation is a last resort for the families, Kimmel said, after they’ve tried every possible avenue with the schools to correct the issues.
“This charter school system has an opportunity to work hand-in-hand with us and the families we represent to fix the problems, to make right what has so clearly gone wrong for so many years,” Kimmel said. “And hopefully if they work with us, then we can come up with something that serves as a model for Minnesota and beyond about how to learn from mistakes, how to change for the better and be a positive force in communities, grappling with these kinds of issues.”