PAW PAW, MI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has asked the federal government to investigate Paw Paw Public Schools, alleging the district maintains a “racially hostile educational environment.”
The complaint filed Monday, Jan. 21, with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, comes after the ACLU and other nonprofit organizations offered to help the district address “pervasive bigotry,” the ACLU said in a statement.
“All children should be able to attend school without having to endure racial discrimination and harassment,” said Mark Fancher, ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project staff attorney and the person who drafted the complaint. “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a day when children of all races, colors and creeds will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers. We honor Dr. King on this day by urging the Department of Education and the Paw Paw school district to pursue racial reform.”
In the complaint, the ACLU detailed several examples of a hostile environment, citing records received through the Freedom of Information Act.
The examples include one student complaining other students said after the election, “Trump’s in the house,” “Go back to Mexico,” and “Go back to your country now and pick blueberries.” In other examples cited by the ACLU, people were called racial slurs including a common slur used against black people and “dirty Mexican.” In another example, students placed a swastika and a small Hitler figurine in the basket of a student’s model hot air balloon science project, the ACLU said.
The incidents of bullying and harassment are usually dealt with individually, but a persistent and widespread problem such as the one at Paw Paw needs a different approach, the ACLU said.
The ACLU also cites the Paw Paw Public Schools Board of Education’s vote in 2017 to reinstate the Redskins mascot, saying the board agreed not to address it again until tax dollars are withheld.
“OCR may withhold federal funding as a penalty, but the ACLU is requesting a ‘voluntary resolution agreement’ that will address and eliminate the racially hostile environment,” the ACLU said in a statement.
The Redskins mascot, which is used for the school’s sports teams, signs, spirit gear and other imagery, has been a source of contention in the community.
Last year, town hall meetings and flooded Board of Education meetings offered various opinions from community members, students, graduates and members of the board.
The board voted in February 2017 to reinstate the name and imagery for all Paw Paw Public Schools after a nearly four-hour meeting where they heard from both sides of the aisle on whether the name was offensive to Native Americans.
Images had been removed in 2015 from all schools except the high school.
Paw Paw Public Schools Superintendent Sonia Lark said the district has heard from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights whether the complaint will be investigated. She said if the Office for Civil Rights does investigate, Paw Paw Public Schools will fully cooperate and will respond more fully to the ACLU’s allegations.
“The District denies the ACLU’s allegations and is disappointed that the ACLU made such claims without conducting sufficient and objective research,” Lark said. “In the past three years, district administration received only a handful of race-based harassment claims, each of which the district promptly and effectively addressed. Contrary to the allegations in the ACLU’s complaint, district staff and administration work tirelessly to promote diversity and to encourage cultural sensitivity.”
In the statement, Lark said the school district doesn’t tolerate unlawful discrimination or harassment, saying students, parents and staff are encouraged to report any incidents of discrimination or harassment to the superintendent.