‘This is a community issue’: Kearney residents say lawsuit reflects town’s attitudes toward race

·5 min read

Tiffaney Whitt, the mother of two former students at Kearney School District, was not surprised when she heard about a lawsuit accusing the district in a series of racist incidents targeting a Black student.

The lawsuit, filed in Clay County Circuit Court earlier this month, brought back the trauma Whitt’s kids faced while attending school in the community.

Last year, Whitt filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after her family faced threats and racist harassment both at the school and at home. One of her sons received a threat referencing Emmett Till and the family received death threats and had maggots placed in their mailbox.

She ultimately pulled her children out of the school district and moved to south Kansas City after administrators refused to step in and offer support.

“It still has affected me and my children to this day,” she said. “After reading about it today, I almost had to tell my boss that I needed to go home … There’s so much emotion there.”

A former student at Kearney High School is suing the Kearney School District for harassment after being racially targeted.
A former student at Kearney High School is suing the Kearney School District for harassment after being racially targeted.

The recent lawsuit filed against the school district details a series of instances in which a Black male student, who attended Kearney High School during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years, was regularly subjected to white classmates hurling racial slurs at him, making monkey sounds and sending him threatening messages.

In one such instance, the student received a message that read, “I hope I see your black ass in tree. Alabama wind chime style,” the suit said, and another that read “I hope you and your monkey family gets jumped by all the whites in Kearney.”

According to Whitt, the discrimination leveled at her children and the Black student in the lawsuit does not stop at the school district.

“This is a community issue and a school district issue,” she said.

Members of the Kearney community had referred to her sons as either monkeys or gorillas on a number of occasions, she said. When she’d ask for help, people were too afraid to speak up for fear of backlash.

On Tuesday, at least a dozen Kearney residents interviewed by The Star refused to comment on the lawsuit publicly out of fear that it would hurt their small business or ostracize them from their community. Some said the community needs to change while others voiced that it’s not an issue and said the lawsuit is an exaggeration.

“We need more open mindedness here,” said a 58-year-old woman, Anne, who declined to have her last name used for fear of retaliation.

“But I don’t see that happening anytime soon,” she said at a whisper, training her eyes on her young grandson at Lions Memorial Park and Splash Pad. “It’s a small community.”

Anne moved to Kearney six years ago and in that time the level of hostility over issues of race has only increased, especially in the last year, she said.

In the parking lot of Cosentino’s Price Chopper on Watson Drive, Robert, who also declined to have his last name included, said the incidents outlined in the recent lawsuit were an extension of the community’s attitude toward race.

Robert moved to Kearney from Kansas City last year. He shook his head in dismay as he loaded groceries into a car. He first learned about the lawsuit on social media.

“It’s unfortunate that this is happening in today’s world,” he said, shrugging in the 90-degree heat. “But this is a direct product of what these kids are hearing at home.”

Students leave Kearney High School at the end of the day, Tuesday, May 17, 2022.
Students leave Kearney High School at the end of the day, Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

The Kearney school district’s student population is 91.5% white; only about 1% of students are Black, according to the state education department. Data from the United States Census Bureau suggests around 90% of Kearney residents are white.

The majority of people strolling through a strip mall along West 6th Street and South Jefferson Street said they had sent multiple generations of children through Kearney schools.

Some were adamant that this was a tight-knit community where bullying of any type was not tolerated. Others suggested that they could not speak to racism in town or school because they are white.

Along South Jefferson Street and West Washington Street in town, family-owned businesses with purple signs labeled “Kearney Strong” were plastered to store front windows.

The majority of people out and about running daily errands said they had seen the lawsuit on social media and were skeptical, confiding that kids could be sensitive or exaggerating the details of harassment for attention. They would not be quoted for fear of retaliation.

At Lions Park Memorial and Splash Pad just a few blocks south, Michael Schummer played with his child as heat radiated from the plastic slides and swings.

He grew up in Excelsior Springs, about 10 miles east, and was not surprised after learning of the lawsuit.

Others passing through the park, however, were shocked to hear about the incidents of racial discrimination in the lawsuit.

Tami Stone, who visits the area to see her grandchildren, said the details of the lawsuit were appalling and upsetting.

“That is horrible, awful and very disturbing. Those poor kids,” she said.

Stone has not lived in the Kearney since her own kids were young and this lawsuit is the first she’s heard of any racial discrimination in Kearney schools, she said.

Kearney School District officials have declined to comment on pending litigation, but said in a statement that they are “committed fully to ensuring that every student can learn in an environment free of discrimination in any form.”

The school board will hold its regular meeting at 7 p.m. on Wednesday.

Whitt said she intends on filing a similar lawsuit against the school and hopes to see consequences for any staff or students committing racist behavior at school.

“We went through some of the same things at the same time,” she said of the incidents listed in the court documents.

The Star’s Sarah Ritter and Toriano Porter contributed to this story.

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