2025 trial date set in Ottumwa Schools civil rights suit

Nov. 21—OTTUMWA — A trial-ready date has been set in a federal lawsuit filed by a school teacher that alleges the Ottumwa Community School District failed to protect them from racially charged abuse and harassment.

Robert Bender filed the lawsuit earlier this spring. The parties have agreed to be ready for a 10-day trial to begin on June 23, 2025. Bender filed the lawsuit in Iowa's Southern District court in June. The district has denied the allegations in case filings since then.

The lawsuit's filing followed proceedings before the Iowa Civil Rights Commission initiated in April 2022. The commission did ultimately issue a right-to-sue letter.

Bender began working for the district in July 2021 when he was hired as a behavior teacher for the district.

The lawsuit says a couple of months into his tenure, a student directed a racially-charged term toward Bender, who is Black. The remark was witnessed by several colleagues, and none challenged or attempted to stop the student's behavior, according to the lawsuit petition filed by attorneys representing Bender.

Over the course of months, multiple other students, primarily in the sixth and seventh grades, continued to use the derogatory language aimed at Bender. Students at times received timeouts or short suspensions.

Bender said the problems continued without further attempts by the district to rectify the behavior. Bender said other less severe conduct from students has seen harsher penalties than those who have directed the harassment toward Bender.

Bender also alleges workplace harassment, saying he has been retaliated against because of his race and because of his complaints. He said he has been transferred to other roles following his complaints, and that his work is judged more harshly than that of his colleagues.

In their court response, the district says they do not have a record of Bender making complaints to district officials regarding many of the incidents, some described as weekly occurrences, described in the lawsuit. And they say they have not attempted to retaliate in response to his complaints.

"Defendants affirmatively state they have no records of weekly incidents. If such instances occurred with this frequency, Plaintiff failed to report them," district lawyers told the court in court filings.

Kyle Ocker is the editor of the Ottumwa Courier and the Oskaloosa Herald. He can be reached at kocker@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kyle_Ocker.