In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday, a black former Baraboo School District student alleges the district routinely ignored complaints by her and her mother about racist taunts, racially motivated physical assaults, harassment and sexual assault, all of which the lawsuit says the district did nothing to stop.
The lawsuit, filed by lawyers for the 17-year-old student in U.S. District Court in Madison, alleges violations of federal laws intended to protect students from racial discrimination and from sexual assault and harassment. It states the district showed “deliberate indifference” in its failure to respond to racial harassment and discrimination against the girl by district students and staff, “as well as its failure to respond to reported student-on-student sexual assaults on school premises that made (the girl) more vulnerable to sexual assault.”
The lawsuit alleges the district was aware that a particular student, identified only by his initials, had sexually harassed and assaulted female students, including the girl, but took no action. During the 2017-18 school year, the lawsuit states, the boy repeatedly sexually assaulted the girl in class. The alleged sex assaults included inappropriate touching, groping and exposure.
It also outlines a years-long pattern of harassment against the student, from first grade until she enrolled in another school for the 2018-19 school year, though there were two periods during which the girl and her family moved out of state — both times due to racially motivated harassment at Baraboo, the lawsuit states. Family circumstances caused them to move back each time.
The lawsuit also alleges the district routinely tolerated apparel worn by students depicting the Confederate flag, with little consequence.
“Officials at the district never took any meaningful action in response to the reports of racial discrimination,” the lawsuit states. “In fact, most of the time, there was no reaction at all.”
School Board member Tim Heilman said the board right now has “very, very little information” on the allegations. Administrator Lori Mueller said the district has not been served with a lawsuit, and once it is, “we will not comment without seeking advice from legal counsel.”
The lawsuit does not mention a photo taken in the spring of 2018 depicting a group of about 50 boys from Baraboo’s class of 2019 in which many are giving a Nazi salute, which made national headlines when it became public in November 2018.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary compensation from the district “for all economic and emotional losses.”
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Ordinarily, the Wisconsin State Journal would name the plaintiff in a lawsuit. Her name is being withheld because she claims to be the juvenile victim of sexual assault. The newspaper does not usually name such victims. Her lawyer, Paul Kinne, did not immediately respond to messages.
Among the incidents alleged were instances in which the girl and her mother say they were repeatedly subjected to the N-word, both at the high school and the middle school, including an instance in which three female middle school students wrote the word on the side of the school building. When the girl’s mother — who had become a district staff member — spoke to the girls about it, one of them called her the N-word.
The girl’s mother ultimately resigned from her job in February 2018, “exhausted by (the district’s) failure to either address or end its racially hostile educational environment.”
The 30-page lawsuit begins by recounting the role residents from Sauk County played in fighting the Confederacy during the Civil War, and the erection of a monument to those soldiers outside the Sauk County Courthouse in 1896.
“This lawsuit is about how we forgot who won the Civil War, disregard and disrespect for the lives of Union soldiers, and what happens when the Confederacy and its racist institutional practices are allowed to grow and prosper in Wisconsin,” the girl’s lawyers wrote.
Among the allegations in the lawsuit:
- In first grade, when the girl’s classmates teased her about her skin color, school officials told the girl’s mother that the girl was being a bully. Later, when the girl moved back to Baraboo after having moved briefly to Georgia, a school counselor told the girl’s mother again that the girl was the problem.
- When the girl’s brother was a senior at Baraboo High School,
- from their vehicles after the death of another student. Principal Bill Loss dismissed the episode as “good ol’ boys” who didn’t know the flag’s meaning.
- The girl received an anonymous letter in her physical education locker calling her a “slut” and using the N-word. A school administrator declined to investigate.
- In September 2017, a white student wore a T-shirt to school depicting the Confederate flag. Despite a request by the girl’s mother that it be covered, a teacher spoke to the student but did nothing else. The next month, he wore a Confederate flag shirt again, telling the girl he could wear whatever he wanted. He wore it again in January 2018, and at one point also showed the girl his Confederate belt buckle.
- Also in September 2017, the girl was physically assaulted by a boy in a school hallway. The boy received an in-school suspension, despite a required punishment for bullying of a one- to three-day out-of-school suspension.
- In October 2017 through January 2018, the girl was subjected to racial insults and harassment by other students and was shoved in a school hallway. She was the only one punished.
- In February 2018, a white male student asked another male student loudly, “Is it a hate crime if you slap a black girl?” Everyone laughed, but the girl, who was nearby, was terrified and stayed home from school the next week.
Sexual assaults of the girl at school by one of her classmates started in February 2018, the lawsuit states, and included inappropriate touching, groping and exposure. The incidents occurred two to three times per week, the lawsuit alleges, and the same boy also inappropriately touched another girl.
After a May 2018 incident also involving the same girls, the boy was charged with fourth-degree sexual assault and received probation, according to the lawsuit.
Baraboo News Republic reporter Susan Endres contributed to this report.