White family sues BVSD over alleged discrimination at Boulder elementary school

Mar. 13—A family is suing the Boulder Valley School District, alleging the district discriminated against their 9-year-old son, who is white, by selectively enforcing its discipline policies and creating a racially hostile environment at Boulder's Whittier Elementary School.

The parents, whose names weren't included in the lawsuit to protect the child's identity, are suing the school district, Superintendent Rob Anderson, school board members, Whittier Elementary and Whittier Principal Sarah Oswick. The lawsuit, which asks for a jury trial, was filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court.

The family's lawyer, Samantha Harris, said in a written statement that civil rights laws protecting people from harassment and discrimination on the basis of race "protect all people equally."

"Our clients are peace-loving, non-confrontational people, but when BVSD repeatedly refused to protect their 9-year-old son from public vilification and defamation by a district employee, they were left with no choice but to take legal action," she wrote. "They are deeply committed to racial justice, and are the last people who ever expected to find themselves bringing a racial discrimination claim against a school they specifically chose for its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion."

Boulder Valley lawyer Kathleen Sullivan said in a written statement that the school district "strongly denies the claims asserted in this case." She also encouraged students with concerns about bullying to talk to their school leaders or fill out a bullying report at bvsd.org/parents-students/student-help.

"Our district strives to provide a welcoming and safe environment for all students, and our staff take very seriously any allegations of bullying or harassment," she wrote. "Plaintiffs' claims lack merit; their request for emergency injunctive relief is unwarranted; and we look forward to responding to their allegations in due course."

According to the lawsuit, the issues began when a female classmate at Whittier — who is Black and whose mother is a Whittier employee — choked the boy, sending him to the nurse's office. She also had previously hit him on two occasions, according to the lawsuit.

The girl, according to the lawsuit, "attacks other children, after which she blames them for being 'racist,' thus excusing her own behavior." The girl's mother encourages her and used her position to shield her daughter from discipline, both after the choking incident and after incidents with other classmates, according to the lawsuit.

The mother, whose name wasn't used in the lawsuit to protect her daughter's identity, is a substitute teacher and paraeducator. A member of a district committee and founder of a parent advisory group, she also is an education activist who has advocated for more equitable discipline policies, including saying students of color should be allowed to physically defend themselves against racial harassment.

Following the choking incident, according to the lawsuit, the boy invited the girl and a second Black student to play a game during recess on Jan. 20 that involved acting as his "servant and bodyguard." He suggested the game, with no ill intent or racist undertones, after his class studied servants in Colorado history, according to the lawsuit.

The girl then reported him to the school for racism and her mom filled out a bullying report, prompting the school to investigate. More complaints were later added, according to the lawsuit, including that the boy told the girl her hair looked "like rats were coming out of it" and that she would die on a certain day.

According to the lawsuit, it was the girl who first told the boy his long hair looked like a rat's nest, then he responded in kind. The boy also denied saying she would die on a certain day, a threat that wasn't heard by anyone else, according to the lawsuit.

Following the investigation, which the lawsuit says was mishandled, the school switched the boy to a different classroom midyear and required him to use a separate playground during recess, allowing him to be accompanied by one friend.

"(The boy) was punished as harshly as possible for behavior that was neither a violation of any district policy nor broke any school rule; after which he was branded a 'racist' and a 'bully,' and witch-hunted out of school," according to the lawsuit.

The girl's mother in January wrote about the playground game and hair incidents on her Facebook page, without using the boy's name. She also warned other parents about him, according to the lawsuit.

In the comments in her Facebook post, she says the boy "knows exactly what he's saying" and that she's disgusted "with the lot of them." She added that his parents are "nice white liberal racists who smile at you and go to meetings but don't actually do anything tangible."

A district investigation found that the employee's actions didn't violate any district policies, according to the lawsuit.

The boy has not attended Whittier since Jan. 24, according to the lawsuit, because "he can no longer safely attend school, which has become a hostile environment."

The lawsuit asks the court to prohibit the district from engaging in "discriminatory discipline policies, practices and procedures" and from disregarding its policies.

The lawsuit seeks the removal of the employee's Facebook post because it violates student privacy laws, as well as a "no contact order" with the employee so the student can return to school. Other requests include requiring the district to remove the report that found the student engaged in bullying and to expunge his disciplinary record.

The family also is seeking compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney fees.