‘This is a white town’: Kansas City area family sues school district after harassment

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Editor’s note: This story contains graphic and offensive language.

As a freshman at Kearney High School, a Black male student was told by a white female classmate that she would have “all the whites in Kearney beat your ass.”

When a teacher overheard the conversation, the Black student was sent to the principal’s office. There, the principal told him to ignore the white student’s conduct because she was poorer than he was, according to a lawsuit filed against the district in Clay County Circuit Court this month.

It was only one in a series of incidents where the student was racially targeted and harassed while enrolled in the school, according to the suit. The student’s family claims administrators were aware of the discrimination and failed to take action to effectively protect the student and “tacitly condoned and tolerated the racial harassment.”

The suit states that the student was regularly subjected to white classmates hurling racial slurs at him, making monkey sounds and sending him threatening messages.

In 2019, two white, male high schoolers sent him pictures of themselves posing with a Confederate flag during school hours, with a message that read, “Heritage but mostly hate brotha …” The student’s mother reported the incident to administration, the suit says.

The student received other threatening messages that read, “I hope I see your black ass in tree. Alabama wind chime style” and “I hope you and your monkey family gets jumped by all the whites in Kearney.”

Unable to take the continual harassment, the family moved the student out of the school. The student is only referred to by his initials in court documents because he is a minor.

“This family wants justice, and they want Kearney schools to be as good as they possibly can be. And that means stamping out racism,” the family’s attorney Dan Curry said in an email to The Star. “The plaintiff transferred to a different area district and thrived and graduated. But no child should have to experience sustained racial harassment at school, and it affected my client immediately and viscerally.”

Kearney school district officials declined to comment on pending litigation.

“The district will respond as appropriate within the court system,” officials said in a statement. “KSD is committed fully to ensuring that every student can learn in an environment free of discrimination in any form.”

The Kearney school district’s student population is 91.5% white; only about 1% of students are Black, according to the state education department. And it’s not the first time in the past year that a Black family has fled the district, alleging discrimination.

Last fall, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the district after a parent filed a complaint, saying she pulled her children from Kearney schools due to racial harassment.

The suit filed in court this month focuses on the harassment faced by a student who attended Kearney High School during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.

As a freshman, the student participated on the swim team, but was told by white swimmers he needed to shave his hair and dye it blond, according to the suit. Fellow swimmers bullied him for his race and told him, “Swim nigger swim,” during a competition. His sister reported the conduct to the coach.

Later, a white high schooler took a picture of the Black student and superimposed the words “(F*** n*****s)” over the top of it. The lawsuit states that the incident was reported to school administrators.

After the incident with the Confederate flag photos, the petition states that the Black student began receiving threatening messages on social media from an anonymous account. The messages included racial slurs and one read, “THIS IS A WHITE TOWN (N****) BOY.” The family claims to have reported the harassment to a high school counselor and principal, but was told to contact police.

In another incident, the suit states that a white student was playing music with the N-word in it, and began repeating the slur. The Black student asked him to stop, and the white student then began making monkey sounds.

Throughout the school day, several other white students joined in making the noises. The petition claims that was also made known to administrators.

In September 2019, a white female student who had previously harassed the Black student circulated a video in which she and another white student chanted the N-word, and indicated that the slurs were in response to the Black student’s disapproval of that word.

According to the lawsuit, the Black student told his parents he believed the white students were trying to incite violence against him. The next day, several white students allegedly got into a physical altercation with the Black student’s friend, who is also African American.

He then began receiving more threatening anonymous messages. And his parents quickly took him out of the school.

The petition states that the student’s sister also was subjected to racial harassment in the district. In junior high school, for example, the sister was called the N-word in class. She reported the conduct to a teacher and principal. Administration allegedly told her that it would be dealt with at a future date because the accused student had a football game, and his dad was a coach.

The sister also was the target of racial slurs in other incidents in junior high and high school, the suit says.

The lawsuit claims that the district violated the Missouri Human Rights Act and deprived the student of full, equal use and enjoyment of the school and its services. It states that he also was deprived of a safe learning environment and suffered emotional distress and a financial cost to leave the school.

The Star’s Bill Lukitsch contributed to this report.

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