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Families debate lawsuit against Whitewater schools

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Kayla Bunge
September 28, 2009
— The families of three black students are divided on whether they should continue with their federal lawsuit against the Whitewater School District.

Toby Minett, the father of two of the children, has moved out of the district and believes he now must drop the lawsuit.


Toussiant Minett, the father of the third child, remains in the district and plans to keep pursuing damages.


The Minett families claim school officials were "deliberately indifferent" to a racist threat found scrawled on a bathroom stall at the high school last spring. They allege the school district failed to take adequate safety measures after the incident, according to the lawsuit.


Their lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and changes to school policies.


Attorney Mark Sostarich, who represents the Minett families, said Toby and Omolola Minett and their five children—including their sons Damilola and Bamikole, who attended the high school—recently moved out of the area. They now live with relatives in Chicago.


"They made a determination for the safety and best interests of all their children that it simply would be better to relocate," he said.


Toby Minett said the family had no choice but to move. The family received an eviction notice and his wife unexpectedly was fired from her job shortly after the incident, he said, and young nieces and nephews have been ridiculed or bullied at school and near their homes.


"We were forced out," he said. "We were kicked out of the neighborhood."


Minett said the attorney has advised the family to seek dismissal of the lawsuit because the children no longer are attending school in Whitewater.


"I don't want to dismiss it, but I guess I have to," he said. "But I don't want (the district) getting out unscathed. It's not right."


Sostarich said Toussiant Minett and his son, Loussiant, remain in the district. Loussiant Minett is in school and playing football with hopes of getting a football scholarship, he said.


"He is very concerned about missing that opportunity … but he is nervous about being in school," he said.


Toussiant Minett said his son is a good student and a talented football player in his senior year. Transferring schools would be unfair to him, he said.


"What am I supposed to do?" he said. "I can't pull him out. … I have to hope he doesn't get killed. That's a heck of a thing for a parent."


Minett said he will not drop the lawsuit. The families have suffered too much to let it go now, he said.


"This has disrupted our whole family," he said. "This is something they're going to have to deal with for the rest of their lives."


Minett said he not only wants compensation for the family's suffering, he also wants the school to make changes, including closing the campus to prevent unrestricted access to the building and installing metal detectors.


The message discovered last spring used "derogatory, inflammatory and racist" language and threatened death to six black students, who were identified by name, including the Minett children, according to the lawsuit.


School officials did not place the school in lockdown mode or cancel classes and were slow to contact parents, according to the lawsuit.


The parents of the threatened students removed their children from school. Three of the children returned to school to complete their classes and take final exams after school officials assured their parents the children would be "safe and protected," according to the lawsuit.


The three Minett children remained at home for a few weeks. They returned to school to complete their classes and take final exams at the district office, which is down the street from the high school. School officials declined to escort the children to and from classes, as requested by their parents, according to the lawsuit.


Attorney Lori Lubinsky, who represents the school district, said the atmosphere at the high school this year is positive compared to the end of last year. The incident last spring was an "aberration," she said.


"No instances of even remotely similar conduct have been reported," she said. "But if something is going on behind our eyes or ears, we're only going to know about it if somebody tells us about it."


Lubinsky said the district has had an anti-harassment policy in place for some time. The policy is adequate, she said. It prohibits racial slurs, among other forms of harassment, and outlines appropriate action in the event of harassment, she said.


Lubinsky said the requests the Minett families made—such as putting the school in lockdown, installing metal detectors and hiring security personnel—were not appropriate to the incident.


"They're simply overreactions," she said. "The action didn't warrant those sorts of extreme measures."


Lubinsky said the district took the threat seriously and took action immediately. The suggestion that the district was lax in its response is "just contrary to the facts," she said.


The Whitewater Police Department continues to investigate the incident. No arrests have been made, said Chief Jim Coan.


TIMELINE
May 14: A racist and threatening message is found written on a bathroom stall at Whitewater High School. The message uses "derogatory, inflammatory and racist" language and threatens death to six black students, who were identified by name.

The six black students, including the three Minett children, are called into the school office and questioned about the threat.


The Whitewater Police Department is notified of the incident and begins an investigation.


May 15: Police and school officials investigate the incident, interviewing students and analyzing their handwriting.
May 19: School officials notify the public of the incident by putting a notice on the district Web site.
June 2: School officials notify parents of the incident by sending a letter to their homes.
June 5: The Minett families and their attorneys meet with school officials. Superintendent Leslie Steinhaus tells the parents the school is safe and they could allow their children to return to school. But the parents ask school officials what had changed since the incident. Officials say they had requested a heightened police presence at extracurricular activities and had asked school staff to more closely monitor students.

The Minett families agree to allow their children to return to school to complete their classes and take final exams at the district office, which is down the street from the high school.


They also request:


-- The high school be changed to a closed campus to prevent unrestricted access to the building throughout the day.


-- The two general entrances to the building be locked.


-- Metal detectors be used or searches be conducted, at least temporarily, at general entrances to the building.


-- Security be assigned to monitor entrances.


-- Black students be allowed to go to and from classes 5 minutes before or after the general student body, or be escorted by a staff member to and from classes, the bathroom or other common areas, if requested by their parents.


-- Black students, who participate in sports or other extracurricular activities, be assured of increased police presence at such activities.


-- School rules or district policies regarding racial slurs, threats or similar conduct be reviewed and discipline for such behavior be clearly defined.


June 8: Attorney Mark Sostarich, who represents the Minett families, writes a letter to school officials summing up their meeting and reaffirming their requests.
June 18: Sostarich writes another letter after school officials do not respond to the first letter.
June 29: The district forms a community task force on diversity. The group since has had two meetings.
July 27: Sostarich writes another letter after school officials still do not respond.
Aug. 6: Superintendent Suzanne Zentner writes a letter to the Minett families, describing some of the steps the district is taking to "ensure the safety and success" of the children at the high school. She says the high school is willing to provide, upon request, a staff escort for the students between classes.
Sept. 3: The Minett families file a federal lawsuit against the Whitewater School District, claiming school officials failed to take adequate safety measures after a racist threat was found written on a bathroom stall in the spring.

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