'Why don't you talk black?'
West Sonoma County Union High School District is being sued by a former Analy High School student who claims he was the victim of alleged racial bullying during his freshman and sophomore years at the Sebastopol high school.
The lawsuit comes after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which was notified of the allegations in mid 2016 by the student’s parents, released its findings from an investigation into the incidents.
New to harassment
Evan Mack began his freshman year at Analy High School in 2013. He was an above-average student who was well liked; he had never been the subject of racial harassment before, according to the lawsuit.
Mack joined the junior varsity football team. According to the lawsuit, on the first day of summer practice a fellow teammate — one who would be one of the main instigators of the racial harassment — asked Mack, “Why don’t you talk black?” adding that Mack “sounded white.” Mack brushed the comment off, though he was offended, the lawsuit states.
The first day of JV football was just the beginning of the bullying. In his first year of high school, Mack alleged he experienced “racially-motivated bullying and racial epithets in the classroom, during football practice and at football games,” according to the OCR review, which provides the factual basis for the lawsuit. The boy said he was repeatedly called “n—,” both in the classroom and on the field.
After one incident during his social studies class where a student called Mack “n—” Mack reported he was chastised by the teacher for retaliating with strong language. When Mack reported what the student said, the teacher responded that he needed to calm down, according to the OCR review and lawsuit. Mack also reported the allegations to his debate teacher but asked her to refrain from saying anything, as he feared retaliation.
His sophomore year didn’t start any better. According to the lawsuit, Mack alleged a student shouted “n—” from his truck while Mack was walking near Analy High School. The lawsuit reports that on the football field, “n—” was used regularly by a teammate whenever he was injured or unhappy with a play. Coaches, according to Mack, failed to respond adequately, making him feel that “it would not make a difference to report this to anyone else at the school,” according to the OCR review.
During his junior year, the bullying went online. Mack was harassed over Instagram and Facebook messages. Examples of the harassment include a student asking how Mack could have pride in his race as, “blacks are taking advantage of the welfare system, filling prisons, the most crime and burning” the American flag. Another student sent a message saying he was going to “rip the black off of” Mack.
Failed by the district?
During the two years of alleged harassment, school and district personnel failed Mack, according to lawsuit and OCR review. After Mack filed a formal complaint before the start of his junior year, the school district agreed to investigate Mack’s complaint in two phases, covering the social media messages and the complaints about in-persons interactions at school, according to the lawsuit. While the investigation was underway, Mack started his junior year in independent study.
Analy vice principal Lindsey Apkarian was assigned to interview the two students responsible for sending the social media messages. According to the lawsuit, Apkarian conducted a “flawed and woefully inadequate investigation.”
The lawsuit claims Apkarian asked the student responsible for the Facebook messages if he heard about “Facebook banter that was race-related.” After the student denied posting anything race-related and suggested his Facebook account may have been compromised, According to the lawsuit, Apkarian told him “he was not in trouble and would not be disciplined, despite never determining who had actually sent the racially harassing messages.”
As for the student who sent the Instagram messages, the OCR review states that Apkarian said the student “was not disciplined because the messages were off-campus behavior.”
WSCUHSD superintendent Steven Kellner issued the District’s findings regarding the social media messages on Aug. 28, 2015, 24 days after Mack’s initial complaint. “The findings, which were not in accordance with the requirements of board policy or administrative regulations, merely found” the student allegedly responsible for the Facebook messages “had been talked to” and that the other student “was pursuing other educational options,” making it safe for Mack to return to school again.
That letter also closed phase two of the investigation, reporting the varsity football coach was “unaware of any racist comments” (Mack played on the freshman/JV teams), the social studies teacher had been a substitute and “not a regular district employee,” therefore “nothing was investigated there” and Mack’s debate teacher was on medical leave, preventing the district from being able to conduct an interview.
None of the alleged harassers were punished.
Five weeks later, Mack withdrew from the district altogether. Because of the poor grades earned during his freshman and sophomore years, Mack was placed on academic probation for athletics.
Mack, now a senior, is back on track academically. His GPA was 3.67 for the spring 2016 semester. He plays on the football team, where he has not experienced racial harassment.
Nevertheless, he still lives in fear of those who bullied him at Analy High School, according to the OCR report. The lawsuit against the school district, Kellner, Apkarian, then-principal Chris Heller and current principal (then vice principal) Raul Guerrero, seeks to assuage those fears and bring an end to the “special and general damages, including temporary and permanent academic disruption, stigmatization, loss of social companions and typical social opportunities, scorn, embarrassment, humiliation, exacerbation to his medical condition and lost education opportunities.”
Kellner was unable to discuss anything regarding the pending litigation against the school district but noted that the district has started to implement steps of the OCR resolution agreement. These steps include preparing, posting and sending out the district’s policy on unlawful discrimination, preparing a staff guidance memo reviewing the discrimination complaint reporting procedures, preparing orientation materials to inform students about the district’s policy and developing instructional material on race and race-based discrimination.
“It’ll be multiple years of rolling this out,” Kellner said.