Resolution on Racial Harassment Investigation of Iowa School Announced

(OCR) Monday announced the resolution of a racial harassment complaint filed against Ottumwa Community School District in Iowa.
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Photo: Ottumwa Community School District

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) Monday announced the resolution of a racial harassment complaint filed against Ottumwa Community School District in Iowa. 

OCR determined that during the course of school years 2020-21 and 2021-22 district students subjected a Black middle school student to racial harassment so pervasive that it constituted a racially hostile environment and that the district failed to take necessary steps to protect the student, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its implementing regulations. 

The harassment included repeated use of racial slurs including calling the student the N-word and a “slave” to white students as well as calling the student “blackie” and “cotton-picker,” targeting the student with monkey noises in class and students raising their fists to mock Black Power during class, a white student using the term KKK and then referring to it as the “Kool Kids Klub,” and telling racially derogatory jokes about, for example, killing a Black man and not being able to see Black people at midnight.

In one instance, a white classmate knelt on a Gatorade bottle in the student’s presence and said, “It can’t breathe,” to mimic George Floyd’s death. The harassment the student experienced and the district’s failure to provide the student with a safe school environment caused him to suffer significant and enduring emotional harm.

OCR also found that even though the district had notice of possible ongoing harassment, the district disregarded its obligations to investigate whether its response to the reported harassment was effective in eliminating the hostile environment, whether it addressed the cumulative effect of the incidents on the harassed student, and addressed the impact the verified wide-spread conduct may have had on other students. 

In so doing, the district did not take effective school-wide measures to address and remedy the racially hostile environment, which continued to exist at the school.

The resolution agreement commits the district to take steps to ensure nondiscrimination based on race, color, or national origin (including based on shared ancestry and ethnic characteristics) in all of its education programs and activities.

“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,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon. “I thank Ottumwa Community School District for committing today to take the steps necessary to ensure that in future it will respond appropriately to reports of racial harassment so every student in the district’s schools will experience the nondiscriminatory learning environment that federal law guarantees.”

The district’s commitments in the voluntary resolution agreement include:  

Reimbursing the student’s parent for documented expenses incurred related to past and future therapeutic services resulting from the racially hostile environment. 

Publishing an anti-harassment statement stating that the district does not tolerate acts of harassment, including acts of harassment based on a student’s race, color, or national origin.

Reviewing and revising its policies and procedures to address Title VI’s prohibition of harassment based on race, color, or national origin. 

Providing training to district staff regarding the district’s obligation to respond to complaints of harassment based on race, color, or national origin. 

Providing age-appropriate information programs for students to address harassment based on race, color, or national origin. And, 

Conducting a climate survey to assess the prevalence of harassment in the student’s former school and provide suggestions for effective ways to address harassment.  

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