ACLU accuses school of failing to protect Black student

Published: Dec. 22, 2021 at 10:43 AM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) The ACLU of Vermont has filed a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission alleging that a Windham County school took no meaningful action to protect a Black student from racially motivated harassment, bullying, and threats.

The ACLU alleges a 10th-grade student at Twin Valley Middle High School in Whitingham endured racially motivated bullying for months, ultimately transferring schools with two weeks left in the school year.

The complaint says she was new to the school during the 2020-2021 school year and was the only Black student at the time. “Our client was subjected to months and months of vicious and horrifying racial abuse, harassment, and bullying and when she turned to the school for help, they did essentially nothing to protect her from it,” said the ACLU’s Lia Ernst.

The abuse began shortly after the student began classes, according to the complaint. In December of 2020, some students directed a racially disparaging term at her in class. She and the teacher reported this to the principal, which was when the first investigation was initiated. In February, male students directed a Nazi salute toward her while repeating the same disparaging term.

“When speaking to administrators about -- specifically the Nazi salute -- they said. ‘Oh, that’s just something students do here,’ as if that were to make it okay,” Ernst said.

In the report, Ernst says the same boys would lunge at her in the hallway. And in March, a social media video was captured of the boys yelling the slur and telling her to “burn in hell.”

Ernst says the school conducted two investigations but no remedial action was ever taken. “In these so-called investigations that the school did, they didn’t even bother to speak with our client or her mother,” she said.

The complaint says her grades suffered, she stopped playing sports, she was afraid to be alone and developed anxiety and depression.

In a statement, Windham Southwest Supervisory Union Superintendent Barbara Anne says the school alerted families, investigated, and took disciplinary action. “The disciplinary actions taken by us were effective. No student repeated the race-based misconduct,” she said. “We will zealously defend our actions before the Human Rights Commission, and in any subsequent litigation. We dispute the suggestion that the District failed to follow the law. The District will prevail in any litigation concerning this matter.”

The ACLU’s Ernst says the district’s statement is deeply troubling. “It would be my hope that administrators would see a set of allegations like this and reflect on what went wrong and what they could do better in the future,” she said.

Ernst says schools have a wide range of tools to address these issues. She adds that this is a statewide problem and she wants the state to put more resources and effort into ensuring all students have a learning environment free of discrimination.

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