Education

New civil rights investigation underway in Cedar Rapids school district

Complaint asserts class was 'hostile environment' for black students

(File photo) A Cedar Rapids Community School District bus at the Education Leadership Support Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, August 7, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
(File photo) A Cedar Rapids Community School District bus at the Education Leadership Support Center in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, August 7, 2014. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The Cedar Rapid school district again is under federal investigation following a complaint that a teacher discriminated against African-American students.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate the complaint, according to a letter from the agency dated Jan. 24 and obtained by The Gazette.

School district spokeswoman Akwi Nji, in response to a question, said the district was made aware of the investigation Tuesday.

“The district, through legal counsel and its insurer, will cooperate fully with the investigation,” Nji said. “However, given the fact that confidential student and personnel records may be implicated and given the fact that the district just received the complaint from OCR, the district will not offer further comment on the matter.”

According to the letter, which outlines the complaint against the district, a Cedar Rapids teacher harassed multiple black students in a food and nutrition class in fall 2017. The district was aware of the “hostile environment” in the classroom, according to the letter’s description, but “failed to take appropriate action.”

It states the same teacher also retaliated against a student for speaking out against the harassment of her peers, treating her “more harshly” after she complained and excluding her from class “on several occasions.”

The letter, written by U.S. Department of Education supervisory attorney Marcela Sanchez-Aguilar, notes that the opening of the investigation does not imply that the Office for Civil Rights has made a determination about the complaint’s merits.

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The letter does not identify the teacher or the school where the discrimination allegedly occurred. Food and nutrition classes are offered as electives at high schools in the district.

The federal investigation is the second civil rights probe in four years into the district. The first concerned alleged events at Washington High School and began in January 2014.

The complaint behind that investigation asserted the school district failed to respond to black students’ reports of being bullied, and enforced dress-code policies with black — but not white — students.

During that investigation, federal investigators visited eight Cedar Rapids schools and interviewed staff and students in September 2014.

In a July 2016 interview, Cedar Rapids Superintendent Brad Buck, who was hired by the district after the 2014 investigation began, said the district was working to correct district practices that might have led to that federal probe.

“I would say we’ve already engaged in a significant amount of the work that often results in the outcomes of these,” Buck told The Gazette in July 2016. “I think we’ve situated ourselves well — to the benefit of our kids and teachers — to get at the very work that is being reviewed here.”

A U.S. Department of Education official did not immediately respond Tuesday to questions about the new investigation.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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