Iowa school district agrees to deal with racial harassment

OTTUMWA, Iowa (AP) — A southeast Iowa school district failed to protect a Black student from pervasive racial harassment and now must take steps to help the student and ensure it responds appropriately to any future racist actions, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The department announced Monday it had resolved a complaint filed against the Ottumwa school district after investigating allegations of harassment in the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school year against a middle school student. The investigation found the harassment amounted to a “racial hostile environment” that violated the student’s federal civil rights, the department said.

The student endured repeated racial slurs, was targeted by students making monkey noises and was told racially derogatory jokes. District officials were told of the harassment but didn’t take effective actions and didn’t follow up to ensure the harassment had stopped, the department’s investigation found.

“Federal civil rights law has for decades promised that no student should experience the racially hostile environment that the young person in this investigation endured,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a statement.

In a statement posted on the district’s website, Superintendent Michael McGrory didn’t apologize for how officials responded to the harassment, but said the district had worked collaboratively with the Office of Civil Rights and “finalized a joint agreement to move forward with systemic improvements to our policies and procedures to ensure equity for all of our students.”

Under the agreement, the district promised actions including reimbursing the student’s parents for expenses related to past and future therapeutic services resulting from the harassment as well as publishing an anti-harassment statement. The district also must review its policies related to harassment based on race, color or national origin, provide training to staff and offer age-appropriate information to students.