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Lawsuit: Central Minnesota school district failed to address racist bullying

Andrea Robinson and her children claim teachers and administrators at Rocori School District looked the other way as students used racial slurs in class and sent threatening messages on social media.

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COLD SPRING, Minn. — A mother and her two high-schoolers have filed a lawsuit alleging staff at a central Minnesota school district didn’t do enough to address racist bullying by students.

In a complaint filed this month in U.S. District Court, Andrea Robinson and her children, who are Black, claim teachers and administrators at Rocori School District in Stearns County looked the other way as students used racial slurs in class and sent threatening messages on social media.

The lawsuit is the latest development in the school and community's reckoning with racism over the past year, and comes after district officials in May 2021 said they were committed to taking action on the issue. Robinson spoke out on her childrens’ struggles with racist bullying at a school board meeting that month, which was well-attended by supportive members of the public who urged the district to take action , Minnesota Public Radio reported.

With her daughter now attending a different school district, Robinson is seeking damages from Rocori schools for emotional suffering experienced by her daughter and son. The lawsuit claims violations of the Civil Rights Act, and does not specify damages sought.

"Ms. Robinson decided to take legal action now because she only wanted to sue as a last resort," attorney Paul Kinne told Forum News Service. Kinne, with Wisconsin-based Gingras, Thomsen & Wachs, is one of three attorneys representing Robinson. "Her efforts directly with the district and in another forum were clearly futile. So this was the only option left for her at this point."

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Rocori is a school district serving the cities of Cold Spring, Richmond and Rockville in Stearns County, about 10 miles southwest of St. Cloud. Superintendent Brad Kelvington did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Rocori School Board Chair Jennifer Bohnsack said the district had not been served with a complaint and was not in a position to respond to any of the allegations.

Ahead of its May 2021 meeting, the school board did issue a statement on the matter saying it was committed to upholding "equity, empathy and respect" for all groups.

"Racism will not be accepted or tolerated," the letter said. While Bohnsack did not provide details on exact steps the district has taken, the district hired a multicultural liaison in September, the St. Cloud Times reported.

The lawsuit filed by Robinson on Jan. 21 claims a pattern of racist bullying started in 2015 when her son first started attending Rocori Middle School. Often students would direct racial slurs at her son in classrooms or hallways within earshot of staff, who seldom intervened, the lawsuit claims.

Robinson's daughter, 16, endured racial bullying, including comments on her hair and appearance, and students spreading sexual rumors about her, according to the complaint. Her mental health deteriorated to the point where she no longer wanted to attend school. In December of that year, the then 15-year-old was the target of a Snapchat group chat of more than 50 Rocori students, where some made threats of assault that escalated to death threats that included racial slurs, references to lynching and ropes.

Robinson attempted to intervene by involving other parents and asked the school to discipline the students making the threats. Former high school principal Nate Guetter told Robinson the school could not do anything about the messages despite proof with screenshots, the lawsuit said.

Months later, according to the complaint, one of the primary students making threats would be presented with an award from the school district for upholding school values. When Robinson complained, the district removed the award announcement from its website but did not strip the student of the award, according to the complaint. The district in May said it would revisit its process for the award.

Her daughter's mental health and school performance continued to suffer because of the bullying, and she remained in distance learning instead of returning to in-person class when normal instruction resumed for Rocori schools in January 2021. Her grades continued to suffer for the remainder of the school year. In fall 2021, Robinson removed her daughter from Rocori and placed her in a school in a different town.

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Robinson and her family speaking out against racism in their community thrust them into the statewide spotlight in 2021. In July, someone put a piece of granite on the accelerator of a stolen SUV and sent it crashing into their Cold Spring home , the St. Cloud Times reported. Inside the cab of the truck was a teddy bear hanging by a noose. Prosecutors said the man charged in the crash was motivated by racial bias.

Following the attack and fight with the school, Robinson in November announced she was running for a seat on the Cold Spring City Council, multiple news sources reported.

Alex Derosier covers Minnesota breaking news and state government for Forum News Service.
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