Issues relating to Critical Race Theory, LGBTQ, and sex are central to the most recent culture wars du jour in school districts across the country. Like whack-a-moles, parents in a bubble, pols, and administrators who advocate banning books from high school libraries, including many of the classics, pop up from time to time. How many of those high school students would take time away from the smart phones their parents provide them, from Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, sexting, and on-line . . . everything, to read Nabokov’s Lolita for the sex and not the literary brilliance? As a teen, my attraction to anything someone in authority labeled as taboo was magnetic. It’s not like students don’t have access to a digital library of the world.
I don’t disagree that parents are primarily responsible for their children’s upbringing, values, behavior, education, and socialization. Public schools teach subject knowledge but equally important social skills through interacting with other students, teachers, and staff. Public schools also provide a setting for ethnic-racial socialization, which includes messages students give and receive from other students, teachers, and staff.
What are the students taught at home about immutable differences in themselves and others that contribute to such messaging? And what are parents doing to assure they and their students are not contributing to a culture of racial harassment, violence, and discrimination?
Given the race-based violence, political and culture wars grounded in race, and extensive litigation across the country in which race is a central feature of discrimination and victimization, I thought it appropriate to focus on a source of such violence, harassment, and discrimination in my own back yard, Utah, a red state where its citizens and pols conflate history and CRT and, frankly, are making the theorists’ case for structural – not just flagrant – racism.
OWN THIS, PARENTS!
It does not take an educational psychologist to conclude that being referred to by one’s peers by the most noxious racial epithet in the contemporary American lexicon, being shamed and humiliated on the basis of one’s race, and having the school authorities ignore or reject one’s complaints would adversely affect a Black child’s ability to obtain the same benefit from schooling as her white counterparts.
Bryant v. Independent Sch. Dist. No. I-38, 334 F.3d 928, 932 (10th Cir. 2003).
In a September 15, 2021 letter from the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section, the Davis School District in northern Utah received Notice of Findings of Race Discrimination in the District. The notice, linked below, details a history of racial harassment and other discrimination by students, faculty, administrators, and staff to which the District’s response was found to be “deliberately indifferent.” Under civil rights laws, showing an institution’s deliberate indifference to harassment and discrimination of which the school has been placed on notice is a very high bar and no easy task. Usually, a public institution can show it did something – anything – in response to being notified of a violation.
Below, I attempt to reduce the lengthy DOJ report to its essence. I delete the extensive references to and quotes from supporting legal authority. Given the context, I leave in some duplication.
Willendorf Revisited, Watercolor, 36" x 50", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
“DOJ found severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive race-based harassment in schools across the District. Parents and students informed DOJ that white students repeatedly called Black students the n-word despite the District’s knowledge and without consequence. We learned of incidents in which white students referred to Black students as dirty, asked why they did not wash their skin, and commented that their skin looked like feces. White students also called Asian-American students pejorative slurs, such as ‘yellow’ and ‘squinty’ and told them to ‘Go back to China.’ At some schools, white students who called Black students the n-word also wore and displayed confederate flags. Parents and students across the District told us that these forms of harassment were so commonplace, they expected them to happen.”
“DOJ found that the District was on notice of the racially hostile environment. Although some students told us that continuing to report racial slurs was futile, many parents and students persisted in reporting incidents of racial harassment to teachers, counselors, and school- and district-level administrators. The District’s documents show it had actual knowledge of at least 212 incidents in which Black students were called the n-word across 27 schools, as well as additional incidents of race-based harassment of Black or Asian-American students.”
“[W]e found that the District was deliberately indifferent to the racially hostile climate in many of its schools. Despite being on notice of pervasive racially hostile incidents across District schools, frequently the District ignored parent, student, and advocate complaints completely, dismissed them as ‘inconclusive’ even when corroborated by other witnesses, or merely told the harassing student(s) not to do it again, even when the student had harassed Black or Asian-American students previously. At times, the District told Black and Asian-American students not to be so sensitive or made excuses for harassing students by explaining that they were ‘not trying to be racist.’ Several teachers admitted to hearing students use the n-word and did not report it to administrators. Their response: telling students to ‘watch their language.’ Likewise, in October 2019, a white student dressed as Hitler for Halloween, marched in a parade throughout his elementary school while performing the Nazi salute, and no school staff stopped him or reported his costume and behavior to school administration.”
“Our investigation revealed complaints of race-based harassment that parents or other staff elevated to the District compliance officer, but the District failed to investigate or otherwise respond. . . . In several instances, the District took no action in response to parents’ repeated complaints, only to conduct a belated investigation when parents, as a last resort, went to the media. As a consequence of this dismissive attitude to serious racial harassment, a District-wide racially hostile environment went unabated.”
Touring Silicon National Park, Oil on Canvas, 48" x 32", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
“The Department also found severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive race-based harassment by staff in several District schools and services. Students and parents reported incidents in which District staff targeted and assaulted students of color, ridiculed students in front of their peers, endorsed pejorative and harmful stereotypes of people of color in class, and retaliated against students of color for reporting harassment.”
“The District’s documents confirm its notice of each incident or earlier incidents involving other complainants that were similar and close in time to later harassment. Our investigation found that the District responded to these incidents in a manner that was clearly unreasonable in light of known circumstances. The Department found that the District disregarded student witnesses who corroborated allegations and took no or minimal action to eliminate the hostile environment. For example, one school received a complaint that a teacher constantly ridiculed a Hispanic student and taunted him for working at a taco truck (though the student did not). An administrator interviewed other students who confirmed that the teacher ‘openly picks on certain students.’ Yet, the administrator took no steps to remedy the hostile environment. Where there was a response to harassment or retaliation for reporting harassment, it was ‘minimalist,’ and staff remained in charge of educating or supervising the very students they degraded through racial harassment. In response to one incident, the District’s ‘investigation’ was designed to vindicate its staff rather than identify and respond to harassment. As a result, the District left students of color vulnerable to continued abuse. When parents reported a serious incident of physical harassment directly to District officials, those officials took no steps to ensure an appropriate response, and another student was subsequently exposed to a similar incident.”
“In addition to our conclusion that the District’s response to these incidents was clearly unreasonable, we noted other significant failures in the District’s practices. We found that school or department administrators failed to report complaints against staff in violation of District policy. We also found that District officials failed to supervise a department director’s investigation into serious allegations of physical harassment that endangered a student, despite longstanding concerns that the director did not follow District policies and protected certain employees from discipline.”
“Despite widespread student-on-student and staff-on-student harassment, the District did not train administrators or teachers on how to identify and respond to incidents of racial harassment. To date, the District has produced only one administrator training that discussed racial harassment on a single PowerPoint slide and was created after our investigation began. This lack of training in the face of nearly uniform failures to recognize and respond to widespread racial incidents is clearly unreasonable in light of known circumstances.”
“DOJ’s investigation concluded that the District discriminated against Black students in its enforcement of discipline policies and practices. . . . The Department collected and analyzed extensive evidence about the District’s disciplinary practices. We reviewed examples of disciplinary records of white and Black students who were similarly situated in relevant respects, statistical data on disciplinary practices in the District, statements of District employees, school and District discipline customs and practices, and District training for administrators and teachers responsible for administering discipline. Based on the evidence from our site visits and the analyses of the related data, we concluded that the District has deprived Black students the equal protection of the law through its discriminatory enforcement of its codes of conduct and referrals to law enforcement.
“Based on the District’s discipline files from the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years, we found Black students received harsher discipline consequences than white students for similar offenses, even when the students were close in age/grade, had similar records of prior misconduct, were disciplined for the same conduct code violation, and where the narrative descriptions of the misconduct suggested that the incidents were of comparable severity. In several cases, Black students were excluded from class through in- or out-of-school suspensions whereas their white peers received a conference. This is particularly true for offenses such as “disruptive behavior,” which requires a highly subjective determination of whether there was a violation of the code of conduct. As a result, Black students missed out on valuable instructional time, which may contribute to or worsen achievement gaps. The Department also found at least one incident in which [a school resource officer] charged a Black student criminally while a white student received a conference for similar behavior.”
“The District has not presented a legitimate explanation for why Black and white students were treated differently under the District’s discipline policy and in law enforcement referrals. In fact, during our interviews, District officials admitted to DOJ that the District’s discipline data revealed that District staff treated students of color, and in particular Black and Native American students, differently than white students. Despite knowing for at least four years that discipline data revealed disparities, the District took no steps to train its staff, implement changes to discipline codes and practices, or otherwise take corrective action in light of these disparities. Put simply, the District knew it engaged in discriminatory discipline and did nothing. DOJ’s investigation did not find any legitimate basis for the more punitive discipline of Black students when compared to similarly situated white students.”
“Finally, DOJ’s investigation found that the District violated the equal protection rights of Black students seeking to form and maintain student groups. . . . Several Black students in the District explained that they want to form student groups because such groups would help them feel less isolated, a part of a common community, and give them a forum to explore their culture, which some said was particularly important as adopted members of white families. Despite documented requests to District schools to form such groups, school officials denied Black students’ requests and granted requests by similarly situated non-Black students. District schools sponsor a variety of such groups—from Latinos in Action, a District-sponsored mentoring and community service program for Latinx students that includes a credited course, to noncurricular, school-based K-Pop Clubs for Korean music and dance enthusiasts. School and District officials offered no legal justification for denying requests from Black students to form such student groups, which would be open to all interested students. One administrator told us that she ‘didn’t think [such a club] was appropriate for school.’ The same school official told a Black student that the school would only support a ‘multicultural club.’ District officials did not help these Black students form student groups, despite a clear and documented need to reduce the experience of racial isolation, which was compounded by the racially hostile climate in District schools. These explanations and offers of alternative groups that were not responsive to Black students’ requests are not sufficient to overcome the ‘grave suspicion’ th[at] underlies heightened scrutiny.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November 17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists is not, however, for the faint of heart.
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his artwork. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers.