The slap landed so squarely on the student’s cheek that he could feel the outline of where each finger had touched his Black skin.
The boy was stunned by the violent response to asking his white classmate to quiet down so he could hear during a school assembly. He turned toward his teacher sitting nearby to intervene, according to a federal lawsuit filed last week.
She saw what happened, the complaint states, so he was confused when she said that he would be the one punished.
The teacher suggested that he instigated the attack by tapping on the white student’s shoulder. She told the Black student that he would receive an unsatisfactory grade for his conduct. And she didn’t speak with the white student, who was not disciplined at the time, according to the complaint.
The incident marked just one of several racist encounters that Nicole Sieger says her Black son has endured in school in the months since the U.S. Department of Justice investigated racism in Davis School District. The department found that the district had seriously mishandled reports of racism from its students of color — ignoring concerns about kids being called the N-word and threatened with lynching.
The predominantly white northern Utah school district agreed to a settlement in October to take immediate action and address the failures.
But Sieger alleges that nothing has changed.
That’s why she filed suit against the district and three staff members in U.S. District Court, alleging intentional discrimination against her son and faulting the district with declining to improve the atmosphere of harassment that she said Black students face daily — which she says the district knew about.
“Over this last school year, my son has been the target of certain faculty and administrators in his school,” Sieger said in a statement. “Though I have tried to deal with the school and school district directly to stop the targeting of my son, I found that the end result was an attitude of ‘What has happened to your son has happened and there is nothing we can do to fix it now.’”
Sieger’s son, a minor, is not named in the complaint to protect him from further harassment. He is instead identified as a ninth grader with the initials S.S. The lawsuit also notes that he is a high-achieving student and athlete.
The filing doesn’t name the school at the center of its allegations. But the three employees listed as defendants appear on North Layton Junior High’s staff rosters.
The complaint focuses on the alleged slapping incident, as well as S.S. reportedly being called a “cotton picker” and the N-word.
“S.S. is an upstanding, devoted, and disciplined student of the district,” the filing states. “Yet, because of the color of S.S.’s skin, the district repeatedly blamed, accused and falsely interrogated S.S.”
Davis School District responded with a statement Monday, saying that it cannot comment on pending litigation. But its spokesperson said the district has taken “extensive steps since entering an agreement with the Department of Justice to eliminate racial harassment and discrimination at all levels.”
Racism ‘on a daily basis’
The complaint marks the second high-profile lawsuit that the district has faced in recent years concerning race.
The first came in May 2019, before the DOJ report was released but while federal investigators were looking into concerns. It involved reports that a biracial boy was shut in the doors of a school bus and left to dangle outside while the white driver continued forward.
The family of Izzy Tichenor has also said that they are considering suing Davis School District after the 10-year-old Black girl died by suicide last fall. Her mom said she called the district several times to report that her daughter was being bullied over the color of her skin and for being autistic; she said no one intervened.
Under the settlement agreement with the DOJ, Davis School District has promised to “take all necessary and reasonable steps, consistent with Federal law, to end racial harassment, prevent its recurrence, eliminate any racially hostile environment that currently exists in its schools, programs, and activities, and remedy its effects.”
Those steps are supposed to include training staff and revamping district policies, officials have said.
Spokesperson Chris Williams said the district is working on those tasks and pointed to the December hiring of Jackie Thompson to address diversity and equity. Several other required actions, he noted, will be completed this month and next. That includes a report on where district practices can be improved and hiring a director to lead a new Office of Equal Opportunity.
The DOJ declined to comment Monday on the district’s progress.
The newest lawsuit, though, argues that the school hasn’t taken sufficient action to help students experiencing racism and that the same problems exposed by the DOJ have continued.
Sieger alleges that her son has experienced “racial harassment by students on a daily basis.”
The lawsuit also mentions a part of the federal investigation’s findings, in which Black students reported that teachers often witnessed harassment but ignored it. Sometimes, too, the DOJ findings noted, staff participated in the bullying.
Sieger’s attorney, Aaron Bergman, declined to comment. But the filing states that same treatment from staff happened to S.S.
The slapping incident allegedly occurred during a December assembly. The lawsuit states the teacher, who is named in the filing, saw what happened but brushed off the white student’s actions.
A similar response reportedly happened in February, when S.S. was asked by a different teacher to find out why a group of classmates had not returned from a restroom, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit states that S.S. found them using drugs and reported it. Later that day, a school administrator called S.S. down to the front office and allegedly accused him of supplying the drugs.
She searched his backpack. Nothing was found, the lawsuit states, and S.S. and Sieger demanded to know why he was accused of having the illegal substances. They believe it was because he is Black.
“The district does not search the backpacks of white students who witness a fellow student using illegal contraband on the premises,” the lawsuit alleges. “Nor does the district automatically assume that a witness white student provided the contraband.”
Slipping grades and stomachaches
After that, another administrator called S.S. into his office and accused S.S. of engaging in criminal conduct with a white female student, the lawsuit alleges.
S.S. told the administrator that he didn’t know what the administrator was talking about, according to the complaint. The lawsuit states that S.S. acknowledged that he kissed the girl, but it was consensual and that they had done nothing wrong. The administrator allegedly told S.S. that he had video of the supposed illegal activity and made S.S. write a statement.
When Sieger confronted the district about it, a Davis official said there was no video and “expressed confusion as to why [the administrator] was even questioning S.S. at all,” the lawsuit states.
Sieger said the administrator, though, continues to watch her son closely as he walks in the hallways. She said her son feels “even more uncomfortable and threatened,” according to the complaint.
Since those encounters, S.S.’s grades have slipped, and he’s suffered from anxiety and stomachaches, the lawsuit states. For several days, he’s been too sick to attend class.
“Our goal is that Davis School District and all schools within the district understand that this will not and cannot be tolerated,” Sieger said in her statement. “Not one more child should have to experience these negative, harassing interactions.”
The lawsuit argues that the district has engaged in intentional discrimination and caused harm to S.S. It says Davis didn’t act “in good faith and genuinely undertake the interim steps required by the settlement agreement” with the DOJ.
In the five months since the DOJ settlement, the filing states, S.S. has faced bullying from students, teachers and administrators. And Sieger’s attempts to talk to district officials about that have not helped.
The family is asking for the Department of Justice to step in again, as well as for unspecified financial damages. Sieger said she wants her son and other students to have “an education free from fear, free from harassment and free from hate.”
The complaint states the “the very type of harassment that [Davis] had repeatedly let go unchecked” has continued.
Neither the school district nor the employees listed as defendants had filed a formal response to the complaint as of Monday afternoon.
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