Northern parents file suit in racial incidents

A group of parents of 12 current and former Port Huron Northern High School students has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the school district and key officials.

New York lawyer Joshua Friedman announced the lawsuit - which seeks undetermined monetary damages and corrective action - during a press conference Tuesday outside the school. He was accompanied by several parents participating in the suit, many whose students were included on a hit list of minority students school officials discovered in May.

The suit said the students were victims of student-on-student harassment and subjected to a racially hostile school environment from September 2003 to September 2006.

"We're here to ask the authorities or those responsible for Northern high school to take whatever steps are necessary to end racial harassment," Friedman said.

By Melissa Wawzysko Times Herald photos by MELISSA WAWZYSKO
FIGHTING MAD: Parent Liz Guertin, right, of Port Huron listens as lawyer Joshua Friedman of New York holds a sheet of paper that contains a copy of a "KKK" engraving carved into several sheets of paper that belonged to a bi-racial student at Port Huron Northern High School. The suit was announced in a news conference Tuesday.

Defendants include the district as well as Northern Principal , former Superintendent Michael Jones, former school board members Anna Kovar and Charles Meeker and most of the current board members.

Board members Patsy Chapman and Pattie Bayless were not named in the lawsuit, nor was current interim superintendent Tom Shorkey. None were with the district when the incidents occurred.

According to the suit, Northern staff "have taken no action to stop the use of such slurs or discipline students using inappropriate language."

The suit, filed Oct. 18 in U.S. District Court in Detroit, demands a jury trial. District Court has 90 days to notify defendants in a lawsuit. The district still hadn't been notified as of Tuesday, when Friedman decided to announce the lawsuit.

Dahlke declined comment. District lawyer, Gary Fletcher, could not be reached late Tuesday for comment.

Unrest

In May, the school's former assistant principal, Marla Philpot, found a textbook in her office filled with racial slurs and a hit list containing the names of minority students. Philpot also was named on the list.

One parent participating in the lawsuit said Tuesday she still was disturbed her daughter, not the school, informed her that her child was on the list.

"My daughter called me crying and screaming. (The school) should've called me," she said.

Port Huron police detectives said they had persons of interest in the case but did not make any arrests. They were unable to recover fingerprints from the textbook, which had been handled by several administrators before being turned over to police.

According to the suit, students were referred to with racial slurs, intimidated and threatened by white students. It also indicated racial slurs were written on students' lockers, desks and other public areas.

None of the students in the suit were identified by name. Most still attend Northern. The Times Heraldis not revealing the last names of the plaintiffs without their permission in order to protect their children from retribution.

Friedman said the students suffered emotional distress, lower grades and missed school for fear of their safety due to threats of physical violence from white students.

The suit said school officials didn't respond appropriately when told about the incidents, allowing the behavior to continue.

"Defendants' failure to take appropriate action has amounted to deliberate indifference," the suit read, "and has resulted in significant injury to the plaintiffs."

Shorkey said the district has taken steps to address the incidents.

"It was addressed by the school district, it was investigated significantly by the Port Huron Police Department and actions were taken with students and staff," he said.

By MELISSA WAWZYSKO
By MELISSA WAWZYSKO, Times Herald
LAWSUIT: Lawyer Joshua Friedman speaks Tuesday at Port Huron Northern High School on behalf of students who believe they have been the targets of racially motivated threats. Friedman is representing the students and parents, including Liz Guertin, center, of Port Huron, in a lawsuit against the district and key officials. At right is Cathy Martin of WGRT-FM.
For example, in 2005 a Diversity Council of students was formed to promote acceptance and bridge cultural gaps among classmates. The group in 2006 received training from the Anti-Defamation League to help further its goals.

Response

In May, school district officials hired three consultants - Elaine Flowers, Juanita Gittings and Scott Nil - to assess the school's atmosphere

The consultants interviewed 207 people, including staff members, students, parents and community members. In a report delivered to the district Aug. 21, they found Northern staff needed to communicate better, uniformly enforce policy and take decisive action in the wake of all discrimination - socioeconomic as well as racial incidents.

Flowers said Tuesday she was disappointed few parents of students associated with the hit list submitted for interviews with the consultants. Flowers said she supported anyone's struggle for civil rights, but "none of the parents (of those children) came in and spoke with me," Flowers said. "There was a parent who had some real concerns, but her child was not on the hit list."

About 207 people submitted to voluntary interviews, but only three identified themselves as black.

Without the parents' and student-victims' participation, Flowers said it was impossible to gauge the racial atmosphere at the school when the hit list was found.

Friedman said hiring the consultants was not an adequate response. He said the school should have hired trained professionals to evaluate the situation, such as those available from the U.S. Department of Education.

"It is our understanding that those consultants were not experts," he said.

Amy, another parent named in the suit, said she wants people to know there have to be consequences for such severe actions.

"There's got to be repercussions for these actions and this attitude, so they know it's wrong," Amy said.

Ongoing problems

Parent Liz Guertin said racism remains a problem in Port Huron schools, even though some people may not be aware of it. Unlike other parents participating in the lawsuit, Guertin gave the Times Herald permission to use her name.

"Just because you don't see it and hear it doesn't mean it doesn't exist," Guertin said.

Most recently, Northern students on Sept. 8 reported a threatening racist message containing slurs written in one of the stalls of the boys' bathrooms.

Friedman said another plaintiff's daughter on Tuesday morning found KKK cut into a stack of papers.

Port Huron Police Capt. Don Porrett said police are investigating the latest incident. He did not have additional details.

A CLOSER LOOK

RACIAL INCIDENTS

NOV. 10, 2005 - Port Huron Northern Principal sent a letter to parents stating the school had dealt with "a sensitive issue regarding diversity." He indicated the school was forming "a new student group focused on celebrating diversity here at Northern" as well as having other events and speakers.

NOV. 21, 2005- Parents, including future school board member Patsy Chapman, urged district officials to address racial incidents, including a letter containing racial slurs that was found in a black student's locker. The letter included a Confederate flag drawn on it and the words, "The South will rise."

MAY 4- Port Huron police were notified a school official discovered a textbook filled with racial slurs and threats. The book also included a hit list of about 15 students and some administrators. Most of the students were black. The incident was reported to police, but no arrests have been made.

MAY 10- School officials discover a second hit list similar to the first. A bomb threat also was written on a bathroom wall. Police searched the building and did not find any explosive devices.

SEPT. 8- School officials found a racial slur and threat written on a bathroom wall.

OCT. 18- Twelve parents of former and current Northern students file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Eastern Michigan District seeking monetary damages and corrective action from the district. The lawsuit contends the school did not take appropriate action to deal with the situation. Many of the parents had children who were named on the hit list.

TUESDAY- Police said they are investigating a racially related incident that occurred at Northern. Parents' lawyer Joshua Friedman showed reporters a photocopy of a stack of papers with the letters "KKK" carved into them. He said the papers were shoved into a girl's textbook.

TUESDAY- Several parents, along with Friedman, announce their lawsuit in front of Port Huron Northern High School.

Contact Molly Montag at (810) 989-6275 or mmontag@ gannett.com.