"The court finds that the facts sufficiently raise a genuine dispute as to whether the district’s response to the cumulative complaints ... was reasonably calculated to end the racial harassment at Baker.”
PENSACOLA — A federal judge has ruled a case alleging a “racially hostile school environment” at Baker School should be heard in court.
The case was filed in February 2016 by Tyronne and Lakisha Adams, the parents of two African-American youths, against the Okaloosa County School District and Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson.
In issuing her ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers in Pensacola delivered a scathing rebuke of the school's and the Okaloosa County School District's efforts to protect the boys, identified in court documents as eighth-grader T.A. and 10th-grader T.A. Jr., from pervasive harassment.
“The district has offered no evidence to rebut T.A. Jr.’s testimony that there was nobody to help him get through this situation, or both boys’ testimonies that they feared for their safety as a result of the harassment,” Rodgers wrote. “There is no evidence in the record that the district provided any accommodation for the boys.”
Rodgers ruled a case could be made “as to whether a racially hostile environment existed at Baker” during the time T.A. and T.A. Jr. attended and whether the district's response “was reasonably calculated to end the racial harassment.”
School District Attorney Jeff McInnis cautioned against reading too much into Rodgers' findings. Her ruling was made on a motion for summary judgment filed by the district, he said, and in cases such as those the judge is bound to rule “in the light most favorable to the unmoving party,” which in this case would be the Adamses.
“We do not believe the district or the school acted deliberately and indifferently as to the students' concerns,” McInnis said. “In fact, the district and the school spent a great deal of time initiating steps to address the issues that were arising at the school with these two students. Ultimately it will be up to a judge or jury to decide if those actions were adequate to address those issues.”
The Adamses, a military family, moved from Virginia to Florida and the boys attended Baker School from “at least September 2014 through July 2015,” court records show. Lakisha was a Senior Master Sgt. at Eglin Air Force Base, while Tyronne was an HVAC mechanic with the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at the base.
“In the first two months of the 2014-15 school year at Baker School, T.A. Jr. was called the 'N' word, was told he would hang from a tree, was shown a KKK holding a noose and was told ‘this will happen to you’ by ‘C.R.’ a white student ... and grabbed by the face by an unknown student and asked why did he report a (football) player for making racial slurs,” the initial complaint, filed by attorney Fred Flowers on behalf of the Adamses, states.
Rodgers called the initial (C.R.) attack the most “egregious” of 10 documented for which “undisputed” evidence exists indicating district administrators, including Baker Principal Mike Martello and Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, were aware.
She notes “the record in this case shows that T.A. and T.A. Jr. were called 'n-----' at the very least eight times, once by a teacher, and threatened with a noose at least twice,” during their year at Baker.
“(The Adamses) argue that T.A. and T.A. Jr. were subjected to a racially hostile school environment that deprived them of access to educational benefits and opportunities. The district argues in response that the reported incidents were sporadic and episodic, and because there were no repeat offenders and no evidence of a conspiracy among the students, T.A. and T.A. Jr. ‘were not repeatedly the victims of student-on-student or teacher-on-student racial harassment,’ ” Rodgers wrote. “The Court disagrees.”
“A jury reasonably could find that the racially offensive remarks and actions towards T.A. and T.A. Jr. — none of which (according to the record) were first instigated by either of the boys — were sufficiently regular and continuous to constitute 'severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive' harassment,” Rodgers wrote.
Citing testimony from both boys in which they claimed to have missed class time either due to skipping class for fear of harassment or when being disciplined for retaliating after harassment, Rodgers said a jury could reasonably find “harassment at Baker ... denied (students) access to educational opportunity.”
She also noted the Adamses eventually turned to home schooling and later moved back to Virginia.
Although McInnis argued that the school district had striven during the time T.A. and T.A. Jr. were attending Baker School to create policies to streamline the reporting process for harassment and conducted a school assembly to address issues surrounding the topic, Rodgers said a jury could question whether enough was done.
“A jury reasonably could find that the District was deliberately indifferent when it failed to adhere to its own Equity Policies, including the new Discipline Guidelines for Equity Violations, in handling the Adams’ complaints,” she said.
"In other words, a jury reasonably could find that the District’s response of continuing to issue the same kinds of disciplinary actions that it knew had not deterred other students from engaging in racially offensive conduct against T.A. and T.A. Jr., even after the District formed new 'Discipline Guidelines for Equity Violations' in response to this particular harassment, was not reasonably calculated to end the racial harassment," Rodgers wrote.
Rodgers said in nearly all cases the school and district neglected to follow their own policies regarding reporting harassment and properly disciplining students for it. She also questioned the investigations conducted once complaints were lodged, pointing out that after a student threatened one of the Adams’ boys with a noose in his car no one had bothered to check the car to see if the noose was there.
“Taking into account the number of incidents of harassment, together with the proven ineffectiveness of the district’s disciplinary measures in changing the culture of harassment as well as the district’s failure to adhere to its own policies, a jury reasonably could find that the district ignored the signals that greater, more directed action was needed,” Rodgers wrote. “Therefore … the court finds that the facts sufficiently raise a genuine dispute as to whether the district’s response to the cumulative complaints of T.A., T.A. Jr., and their parents was reasonably calculated to end the racial harassment at Baker.”
Rodgers sided with the school district on two issues raised in the motion for summary judgement. She granted a motion to remove Jackson, in her official capacity, from the lawsuit and dismissed a request from the Adamses for injunctive relief.