The sign just outside of Cherokee Middle School on Jan. 3, 2023. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

IN-DEPTH |

An attorney representing Springfield Public Schools “categorically denied” allegations of racial discrimination in the hallways and classrooms of Cherokee Middle School, according to a detailed state report obtained by the Springfield Daily Citizen.

Ryan Olson, the school district’s attorney, denied the allegations in a Jan. 18, 2022, response to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, which initially investigated the complaint. Many of the allegations in the state complaint, lodged by a Black former Cherokee student and her mother in 2021, are now part of a federal lawsuit filed in December

The district hasn’t responded to the lawsuit yet. But Olson wrote to the commission that the only specific incident of discriminatory language — cited by the former Cherokee student in an email to the school’s assistant principal — was spoken by a Black student.

This, Olson wrote, is “clearly a different situation than the one described in the Charge wherein Complainant alleges widespread use of ‘white power,’ and implies white students told Student to ‘go back to the fields cotton picker’ or to ‘kill yourself.’”

In the federal lawsuit and her initial complaint to the commission, the student and her mother said use of the N-word and other derogatory language was casual and repeated during the 2020-2021 school year, and led to several times when the girl self-harmed in the spring of 2021. 

The family filed a discrimination complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights on Sept. 28, 2021. Last year, after reviewing information from law firms representing the family and the school district, the commission issued a right-to-sue letter to the family. With that notice, the commission stopped its investigation of the claims and closed the case. Any determination regarding discriminatory conduct will be decided in federal court. 

Portions of the commission file, including the family’s initial complaint and the right-to-sue letter, were included in the federal lawsuit filed by the Cornerstone Law Firm in Kansas City. The full commission case file, which includes the district’s point-by-point response to the 2021 complaint and emails from administrators, the student and her mother among its 118 pages, was obtained through a Sunshine Law records request filed by the Daily Citizen. 

A page from the Springfield Public Schools response to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Lawsuit claims discrimination prevalent in Cherokee Middle hallways, says administrative response was lacking 

A federal judge ruled the child and her mother could file the lawsuit anonymously, citing “the disclosure of sensitive and intimate information in the complaint which challenges local government activity,” according to the case file in U.S. District Court. The Daily Citizen is not naming the mother or the child, who was 13 when the alleged discrimination occurred. 

The lawsuit was filed on Dec. 16 against three defendants: SPS; Andre Illig, the former Cherokee principal; and Sarah Odom, the former Cherokee assistant principal. Illig is now the director of middle schools and K-8 with SPS. Odom retired in 2022.

Cherokee Middle School, 420 E. Farm Road 182, has about 750 students in grades 6-8; about 4 percent are Black, less than half the districtwide average, according to demographic information posted on the SPS website.

Among its claims, the federal lawsuit alleges the following: 

  • That white students at Cherokee Middle School “regularly shouted racially discriminatory statements in the hallway during passing periods” throughout the 2020-21 school year.
  • That the conduct was “especially prevalent” in the lead-up and aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, and that students who yelled phrases such as “Trump 2020” also yelled, “white power.”
  • That the same students who shouted the statements would sometimes direct them at the plaintiff, and also called her the N-word, telling her to “go back to the cotton field” and to kill herself. A friend who is Filipino also was subjected to racial discrimination.
  • That the plaintiff “never witnessed any adult intervening or taking other action to prevent the students from making the statements,” and that the district failed in its responsibility to establish and enforce policies to prevent illegal discrimination or to train employees to perform roles obligated by federal Civil Rights law.  
  • That the plaintiff’s mother intervened when she found her daughter harming herself on March 27, 2021, and observed numerous cuts on the girl’s arm days later. In April 2021, the girl said she was harming herself due to racially discriminatory comments and an Instagram account created to mock her.
  • That the mother went to Cherokee a day after learning about the Instagram account to make administrators aware of the alleged racial abuse, and to pull her daughter out of the in-person learning environment, and that a delayed response from administrators caused her daughter’s grades to suffer. 

The lawsuit seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the district and the named administrators, stating the girl suffered humiliation and pain from the “indifference to or conscious disregard for” her rights. 

District statement: ‘no place for racism’

The district’s response to the federal lawsuit will be filed within the timeframe required, SPS spokesman Stephen Hall said.

“There is absolutely no place for racism, discrimination or retaliation within SPS,” Hall wrote in a statement. “The safety and well-being of every student is, and will always be, our district’s priority. We want every person to feel welcomed in a learning environment that prepares students to reach their highest potential. We care about our students, and SPS administrators and staff are committed to their success. The allegations outlined in this filing are deeply troubling. It is important to note that preliminary filings are one-sided, providing only one perspective of what occurred. 

“SPS has fully cooperated with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights throughout its investigation, providing thorough documentation regarding the circumstances and the district’s actions. This documentation will be part of the district’s detailed response to litigation. That response will provide further context regarding what was reported, the timeline of the circumstances, and the steps that were taken to address the situation.”

Cherokee Middle School. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

District response points to girl’s email in denial of allegations

The lawsuit states the family had to relocate from Springfield after growing frustrated with the district’s response. 

Olson, the attorney representing SPS, wrote in a seven-page document to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights that the student’s records were transferred to another Southwest Missouri school district in a community where her mother had been working prior to filing the complaint. The district contends that the mother relocated not to move away from discrimination, “but to shorten her commute,” wrote Olson, an attorney with Ellis, Ellis, Hammons and Johnson P.C.

The district acted fairly and appropriately in responding to issues and requests regarding the student’s treatment and education, Olson writes in his response to the allegations submitted to the commission. 

Olson wrote that school administrators responded appropriately to the girl’s allegations of racial discrimination. Odom, the assistant principal, emailed the girl on April 23, 2021, to ask for specific examples. 

“Thanks so much for the information and as I told your mom earlier in the week, I’m very sorry these things have been said to you and in your presence,” she wrote to the girl. “It’s not acceptable. I told your mom that we had an issue of this nature come to us in the office back in January and we were able to get it to stop. We want this to stop, too.” 

The email goes on to ask the girl for names of students who used discriminatory language, as well as locations and times that it happened. 

A copy of the girl’s email is included in the commission files, with the names of the students she mentions redacted. 

“Thank you!” the girl wrote on April 26, 2021. “So whenever I walk into CSIM class (first period) (Student 1) will say ‘go back to the fields cotton picker.’ (Student 2) is one of my good friends and she is in the class also and I know (Student 1) says it to her too. Now for the N word and etc, it honestly just depends [where] you are I hear it at lunch the most. I don’t have specific people but that’s all the information I know that happens in school. Hopefully this information helps in some way. Thanks!”

The copy of the email included with the commission report has handwritten notes pointing to the redacted names with racial information. The first redacted student is described as “Black/African American student.” The second is described as “Bi-Racial.” 

“Thank you very much,” Odom wrote back to the student. “I appreciate this information.” 

In his letter to the commission, Olson wrote that the student’s lack of specifics “significantly downgrades the level of severity of the situation,” and that Odom met with the two students the girl identified by name. 

Black students told not to use racial slurs, District says

“Ms. Odom met with these two students regarding their alleged use of racist language in school which is prohibited,” Olson wrote. “The two students were unable to provide any evidence or specific details for the investigation. Nonetheless, Ms. Odom explained that even if a person is Black they still may not use racial slurs. Other than the alleged isolated remarks by the two Black students, Respondent’s investigation concluded by finding no other evidence or racial remarks made toward Student.” 

The same morning that the girl and Odom exchanged emails, the girl’s mother sent an email to a teacher at Cherokee, who she said was the only minority she saw on the school staff’s roster. In the email, she told the teacher she had to pull her daughter out of school and enroll her in Homebound, a tutorial program for students who have missed school for medical reasons, “because she was dealing with a lot of discrimination and it started to affect her mental well being,” according to a copy of the email included in the commission filings. 

Her daughter “hears the N word and white power in the halls almost daily,” she wrote.

“As a Mom, I’m heart broken and angry,” she wrote. “I have white privilege, I never had those talks. Idk how to help her … I’m doing the best I can to educate myself, give her confidence, and a safe place.”

The teacher forwarded the email to Illig and Odom. 

The late-April meetings and emails followed a request by the girl’s mother to let her daughter finish the school year virtually. According to the lawsuit, she went to Cherokee to ask that on or about April 19, 2021, a day after first learning of an Instagram account the lawsuit states had been recently created to mock the girl. In both the commission filing and lawsuit, it is alleged that an unidentified classmate of the girl had created the account to bully her. 

In the commission filings, the district responded to the allegation by saying there was no evidence presented that showed the account was created at school or by a student. 

“It should not be used to establish any evidence of an ongoing discriminatory or racist environment at Cherokee Middle School,” Olson wrote. 

In the SPS response to the commission complaint, Olson wrote that Cherokee administrators recommended Homebound services for the girl. Enrolling the girl in Launch, the district’s virtual online platform, was “not educationally feasible” in the final month of the school year, Olson wrote. He wrote that the gap between when school staff received the needed paperwork on April 30, 2021, and when Homebound services began on May 5, 2021, was not discriminatory and offered her the opportunity to succeed. 

“Other than her Science grade which was the outlier, her grades remained relatively consistent compared to other semesters,” Olson wrote. 

“It is worth noting that a poor middle school grade does not prevent the student from moving forward and is of no consequence in the future. The only consequence is that the student is identified as an individual who may need tutoring or assistance.” 

In the initial complaint to the commission, attorneys for the girl said the Homebound program was “drastically different than in-person learning and remote learning.” The girl was required to teach herself any classes beyond English and math. She failed science that quarter, the complaint states, and was not provided with a comparable education to her classmates. 

‘You go ahead and call your lawyers,’ school resource officer says after investigating sex assault allegation 

The initial complaint filed with the commission included the claims listed in the federal lawsuit, as well as other incidents that allegedly happened earlier during the girl’s time as a student at Cherokee that, the complaint states, “support a conclusion that Respondents’ treatment of her was because of her race.” The incidents predated the 300-day limitations period in the Civil Rights Act, Olson wrote in response. But he also denied that SPS discriminated against the girl in those instances. 

The first allegation is that throughout the fall 2019 semester, a white sixth-grade math teacher singled out the girl for not being smart and “segregated (her) from the rest of the class by forcing her to sit next to the teacher instead of at her desk.” Olson wrote that the teacher provided one-on-one instruction to students who were falling behind, regardless of race, and that the teacher was not attempting to embarrass the girl, but to help her. 

The other allegation was a reported sexual assault. On Feb. 20, 2020, the girl reported to a school counselor that a white student touched her inappropriately during a ride on a school bus. An investigation involving a school district resource officer and then the Greene County Sheriff’s Office found no evidence to corroborate the claim, according to reports submitted to the commission by SPS. 

An investigative report filed by the resource officer stated that efforts to get video from the bus were unsuccessful because the “recording device had not been functioning for a few months.” The resource officer also wrote in the report that communication channels broke down with the girl’s mother in the days after she was first contacted. 

The resource officer wrote that the mother was “extremely patronizing” during a Feb. 25, 2020, phone call during which the officer said she had not been able to substantiate the girl’s allegation following interviews with other students who had been on the bus. The mother said her daughter thought the officer hated her and accused the officer of thinking the girl was a liar. The officer said the mother said she would “call her lawyers.” After saying she had never called the girl a liar, and had not sensed hatred from the girl during several interactions with her, the officer stopped trying. 

“I stopped mid-sentence because I figured it was pointless to try, so I said ‘you go ahead and call your lawyers,’” the resource officer wrote.

Allegations will be adjudicated or mediated in federal court

Joshua Wunderlich, an attorney with Cornerstone Law Firm who is representing the girl and her mother, said his firm does not comment on ongoing litigation. The recently filed lawsuit could take months, if not longer, to resolve. The deadline to serve the defendants arrives in mid-March. Meanwhile, the case has been included in the Western District of Missouri’s Mediation and Assessment Program. An outside mediator could help the sides reach an agreement on a dispute that state records show is far from being settled.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson