Utah school district will pay $200K to 3 Black students who said they were punished after reporting racism

The settlement is the second announced by Davis School District this week, which will also pay $2 million to the family of Izzy Tichenor, a 10-year-old Black student who died by suicide.

(Davis School District) Pictured is a Davis School District bus in this undated photo. The district settled a lawsuit on Tuesday, August 8, 2023, where three Black students had alleged that administrators in Davis continued to mishandle reports of racism after it was chastised for doing so by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Three Black students said they continued to experience daily discrimination after Davis School District was warned by federal investigators that it was mishandling reports of racism and needed to overhaul its response.

But when the boys tried to speak up about their experiences, they said they were met by the same old pattern of disregard. They alleged nothing had changed.

Now, they are set to receive a combined $200,000 as a payout for what they went through.

The settlement was the second announced by the embattled district on Tuesday. Davis will also pay $2 million to the family of Izzy Tichenor, the 10-year-old Black girl who died by suicide after facing bullying at her elementary school for being Black and autistic. Her case drew national attention.

(Tichenor family) Pictured is 10-year-old Isabella "Izzy" Tichenor in this undated family photo.

The agreements will effectively end the claims lodged against the predominantly white school district north of Salt Lake City as it tries to move forward from a slew of litigation and scrutiny that has dogged it for the past few years.

In the settlement with the three students, the district agreed to pay the sum and to publicly release a copy of the apology it issued to their parents who filed a lawsuit on their behalf. It also released a statement saying it has made substantial changes to address the underlying systemic issues.

“I would like to extend my sincerest apologies to you, and most especially, to your three children for the unwelcome experiences they had while attending school in our district,” Davis Superintendent Dan Linford wrote in the message released Tuesday. “I am grateful to you for bringing your children’s experiences to our attention.”

Linford was recently named to the leadership position and was not the superintendent at the time of the allegations. The district declined to take any questions on the settlements, and the families agreed as part of the “mutual resolution” to let the apology stand as the statement on the matter.

The letter from Linford added: “Our primary goal is to make sure that students enter and enjoy a safe, productive and welcoming learning environment. We have not met our goal when student experiences fall short of that standard.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Davis School District Board of Education appointed Dr. Daniel R. Linford as the new superintendent Wednesday, April 20, 2022.

In addition to the Tichenor settlement, this marks the third major payout for the district over racism since 2019. At that time, it paid $62,500 to a family to close a lawsuit over a biracial student who was shut in the doors of a bus and left dangling outside as it drove forward. His mom had called the incident “racial assault.”

That case was specifically mentioned by the U.S. Department of Justice when it chastised Davis School District in a high-profile report in October 2021 about how administrators there had failed to address “serious and widespread” racism.

Investigators found that district administrators had brushed off hundreds of reports from Black students after they had been called slaves, the N-word, and heard threats that they would be lynched. Some employees, the report said, participated in the discrimination.

The district agreed to a settlement at the time to take immediate action and address the failures.

It’s against that backdrop that the parents of the three Black boys filed their case, beginning in March 2022.

The first student

It started with one parent, Nicole Sieger, filing a federal lawsuit that alleged her son had been discriminated against by Davis staff in the months after the DOJ report had been released.

Her son, referred to in court documents as S.S. because he is a minor, said he’d been sitting in the auditorium of his middle school for an assembly and was distracted by a white classmate sitting nearby who was talking. S.S. said he asked his peer to quiet down so he could hear. The classmate, S.S. recounted, responded by slapping him across the face.

S.S. said he turned toward his teacher sitting nearby to intervene. The teacher suggested that he instigated the attack by tapping on the white student’s shoulder so he would be punished, according to the lawsuit.

She allegedly 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 never disciplined, according to the lawsuit.

The incident marked just one of several racist encounters that Sieger said her son has endured in Davis. And the parents of two other students at the same school shortly after joined the lawsuit, recounting similar abuse.

The second student

Alonzo and Lisa Liddell filed on behalf of their son, J.L. And Kimberly Olsen signed on for her son, N.M. The filing didn’t name the school at the center of its allegations. But the employees listed as defendants appear on North Layton Junior High’s staff rosters.

The parents said their Black kids continued to “experience unimpeded racial harassment.” They were called “cotton picker” and the N-word, “monkey” and “slave.” Other students told them that “white people are better” and “you’re a slave, go back to where you came from,” according to the lawsuit. Those same epithets were described in the DOJ report.

When the racism was reported following that, though, the parents alleged, the school’s administration did nothing to address it. Each boy, they said, was made to report to the same vice principal, who they allege responded by accusing each of the Black students of misconduct.

The Liddell’s son, J.L., said a white student repeatedly made racist comments to him.

In February 2022, he said, the behavior escalated to a physical assault. The white student slammed into him in the hallway. J.L. said he pushed back and told the student, “Don’t do that again!” The student said he would do what he wanted before walking away. J.L. said he confronted him a second time, asking him not to touch him again. The white student shoved him, and J.L. responded by slapping him, J.L. said.

J.L. was called to the administration’s office and called “the aggressor” by a vice principal, according to the lawsuit; he was suspended for three days.

A teacher intervened and told the district’s new Equity Board what they saw happen. That board reviewed surveillance footage — which the family believes was edited — and suspended the white student for one day, according to the lawsuit.

The third student

N.M., the son of Kimberly Olsen, had a similar experience. Beginning in eighth grade, he said the same white female student repeatedly called him racist names, including the N-word.

He went to an administrator several times to report it, but the abuse did not stop, according to the lawsuit.

In March 2022, the same vice principal who allegedly called J.L. “the aggressor” told N.M.’s mom that N.M. would receive in-school suspension for calling the white student a “b----.” N.M. argued that he was defending himself, but the administrator did not listen, he said.

The white student, according to the lawsuit, was not disciplined.

All of the parents said the treatment of their sons was unfair and discriminatory. Each of their sons, they said, saw their grades slip and have suffered from anxiety, stomachaches and other distress as a result of the treatment.

‘Our work is not done’

The complaint stated that “the very type of harassment that [Davis] had repeatedly let go unchecked” had continued with their sons.

The parents said they wanted the district to adhere to the requirements from the DOJ to address the racism in Davis, where just 1% of the 73,000 students are Black.

In the response Tuesday, Superintendent Linford said the district has made substantial changes to address its failures. Those include: creating an Office of Equal Opportunity, appointing an administrator to actively address and review policies, updating Davis’ policies for reporting racism, and training all employees on reporting harassment and discrimination.

“While changes will not happen overnight, it is well underway,” Linford said in his undated letter. “Our work is not done, but with your help, we are building a legacy of positive change.”