Federal lawsuit alleges SPS students yelled racial slurs, 'White Power' in middle school

Cherokee Middle School.
Cherokee Middle School.

A Black student at Springfield's Cherokee Middle School said classmates repeatedly called her a racial slur, told her to "go back to the cotton field" and suggested she kill herself, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday against Springfield Public Schools.

The girl alleges the same classmates yelled "White Power" and "Trump 2020" in school hallways — comments that were sometimes directed at her — and told a student of Filipino descent to "go eat bats" and "go back to China."

The lawsuit filed by the girl and her mother said many racially-charged and discriminatory comments were made within earshot of school employees, who they allege failed to stop it. The family said school officials also failed to quickly and appropriately respond when issues were brought to their attention.

The family alleges the comments intensified around the time of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

According to the suit, the girl started self-harming in spring 2021 but did not initially tell Springfield police officers or her mother about the comments and other alleged bullying by classmates, including the creation of an Instagram account used to mock and "expose" the girl.

In late April 2021, after the girl disclosed what was happening, her mother met with school officials to tell them what was going on and request that her daughter switch to virtual learning, which had been an option during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the suit, the mother said she had to wait for two hours to meet with assistant principal Sarah Odom on April 19, 2021 and that during the meeting, Odom allegedly admitted school officials were aware of some of the comments made in the hallways.

Andre Illig
Andre Illig

The suit said Odom agreed to forward the mother's request to move to virtual learning to Cherokee principal Andre Illig but failed to get back to her for several days.

The mother said she was told the switch to virtual learning was not an option but the family could apply for district "homebound" services, which is often reserved for students with severe special needs or medical issues.

The family said they secured a doctor's note saying the move was necessary but were dismayed the district required them to complete additional paperwork to prove eligibility.

The placement was approved in early May but the family felt it was "drastically inadequate" compared to the level of instruction the girl had been provided in person. The suit said the girl was only given direct instruction for math and English and had to teach herself content from other courses.

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The girl completed the 2020-21 school year but earned an "F" in science. Frustrated, and feeling there was no other option, the family left Springfield and relocated to another part of Missouri.

Complaint says white students at Cherokee "casually and repeatedly said the n-word"

The Cornerstone Law Firm in Kansas City represents the girl and her mother in the lawsuit against SPS, the state's largest school district. Odom and Illig were also named. A jury trial was requested.

The family makes the following allegations in the suit:

  • Black and non-white students were subjected to severe and pervasive racial discrimination by classmates and that SPS officials were aware and did not take proper action;

  • SPS failed to properly train or inform employees about their duties under Civil Rights laws;

  • The girl's right to a meaningful public school education was denied;

  • The mother acted in good faith to report the racial discrimination;

  • The girl was subjected to racial discrimination, a hostile environment, disparate treatment, and was retaliated against. She was denied substantive due process and equal protection under the law.

The family is seeking an undisclosed amount in damages plus attorney fees. The News-Leader reached out to the Springfield district for comment.

Stephen Hall, chief communications officer, wrote: "There is absolutely no place for racism, discrimination or retaliation within SPS. The safety and well-being of every student is, and will always be, our district’s priority. We want every person to feel welcomed in a learning environment that prepares students to reach their highest potential. We care about our students, and SPS administrators and staff are committed to their success. The allegations outlined in this filing are deeply troubling."

Springfield Public Schools has been named in a federal lawsuit filed by a former student at Cherokee Middle School and her mother.
Springfield Public Schools has been named in a federal lawsuit filed by a former student at Cherokee Middle School and her mother.

In September 2021, the family filed a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. The administrative body, operating under the state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, plays a critical role in vetting allegations of discrimination. It investigated and issued a "right to sue" letter.

In the complaint, obtained by the News-Leader, the family alleged that at Cherokee "white students casually and repeatedly said the n-word and oftentimes defaced the school bus by writing the word, among other racial slurs, on the bus seats."

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The family reported other incidents, not reflected in the lawsuit, to the commission. For example, they alleged the girl was told by a white teacher that she was not smart enough and she was "regularly segregated" from the rest of the class and told to sit next to the teacher instead of at her desk.

In the district's response to the suit, Hall noted "preliminary filings are one-sided, providing only one perspective of what occurred."

"SPS has fully cooperated with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights throughout its investigation, providing thorough documentation regarding the circumstances and the district’s actions. This documentation will be part of the district’s detailed response to litigation," Hall wrote. "That response will provide further context regarding what was reported, the timeline of the circumstances, and the steps that were taken to address the situation."

Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to criley@news-leader.com.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: SPS sued over racial slurs, retaliation at Cherokee Middle School