A 17-year-old student endured constant racist harassment at her predominantly white school in Texas, and when she fought back, the student was sent to an alternative program where she would have to wear an orange jumpsuit, driving the girl to be hospitalized in a mental facility.
Before Autumn Roberson-Manahan’s mental breakdown, she was a top contender for valedictorian at Slaton High School in Slaton, Texas.
In October, she asked another student to stop using the N-word four days in a row, but he refused. Administrators and school staff ignored her parents’ complaints. So, Autumn said she snapped, grabbed the boy by the hood of his sweatshirt and yelled at him between slaps on the top of his head.
“You’re gonna learn! … To stop! … That f——! … N—– sh-t!”
The incident was just a sample of what the nearly two dozen Black students at Autumn’s school experienced, according to one of two civil rights complaints filed by the Intercultural Development Research Association, the local NAACP and a group of Black parents and students. They are calling on the federal government to launch a civil investigation into Slaton High and Laura Bush Middle School, also in Texas.
The complaints allege that Black students experienced “a daily onslaught of racialized taunts, threats and jeers from other students.” They accused Slaton ISD and Lubbock-Cooper ISD of failing to protect Black students from racial bullying and harassment in their schools and imposing inappropriate and harmful discipline against those students.
According to the complaint, Black students were sentenced to the district’s disciplinary alternative educational program (DAEP) “without evidence or in violation of state and federal law.”
A Black girl was sent to DAEP on the first day of school after the nurse scanned her face with a blacklight accusing her of using marijuana because she found glowing “specks” on her cheek and chin. She was referred to the program for 30 days.
Autumn’s brother was also referred to DAEP for 30 days before school even started because Staton’s principal said he was “guilty by association” for something he alleges he had nothing to do with.
While at the alternative school, students had to change into an orange jumpsuit, according to the complaints. The advocacy groups argue that DAEP has a record of leading to loss of instructional time and decreased interest in academics and could increase the risk of substance abuse, juvenile delinquency and dropping out.
“Adding insult to injury, Black students were then forced to endure other students in DAEP hurling racial slurs on a daily basis — calling the Black students the “N-word” and “porch monkeys”; telling a Black girl “you aren’t worth anything”; and making “monkey sounds” at them,” the Staton complaint said.
“The racial slurs and harassment were so pervasive that a teacher slipped a Black student a note apologizing for the hostile environment.”
Right before Autumn slapped the other student, he hurled the N-word after dribbling past another student and hitting a jump shot, NBC News reports. Another Black student told a student to stop using the derogatory term and was told to “shut up because you’re Black” on a different occasion.
On another occasion, a Black student catching his breath during football practice was also bullied.
“He can’t breathe like George Floyd,” the other students said.
The stories were similar at Laura Bush Middle School, where students allegedly were called “monkey,” “retard,” “n***r,” “bitch n***r,” and “porch monkey,” and told to “go pick cotton,” among other things.
White students would play the sound of cracking whips on their cellphones as the Black children walked through the halls of the middle school, the complaint alleges.
Staton High employees told the Black students to ignore the harassment because “it’s just a word,” the complaint says.
However, at Laura Bush Middle, one school leader who received numerous calls and emails from parents about the racist harassment and bullying also used racial slurs and derogatory language towards Black students.
The assistant principal, identified in the complaint as Asst. Principal Lewis asked one Black student if he “picked cotton” after the boy complained that white students told him to go pick cotton. The assistant principal also allegedly told a Black student that the school “already had to deal with these n****r situations this year.”
“The families of these children repeatedly reported the racial harassment and bullying that was causing their children emotional distress to Slaton administrators,” the complaint states. “But the administrators failed to take prompt, effective action in response to these complaints, instead leaving Black children to defend and support themselves.”
The racist treatment and referral to DAEP exacerbated Autumn’s existing mental health disability, according to the complaint. She had reportedly dealt with other students using the N-word all school year.
School leadership held an assembly on the third day of school, warning that any student caught using a racial slur would automatically be given a three-day in-school suspension. However, days later, the same boy Autumn struck chanted the N-word in chorus with another student to taunt the Black girl.
“My mindset was: ‘This is the only way it’s gonna stop,” Autumn recalled of the slapping incident that was captured on cellphone video. “This is the only way he’s gonna learn.'”
Autumn ran away to avoid going to the alternative school. The next night Autumn told her family that she was “ready to give up” and “didn’t see a reason to keep fighting.” They placed her in a mental health facility.
Families from both school districts and supporters attended the Lubbock-Cooper Independent School District board meeting on Dec. 12 where three Lubbock-Cooper families testified.
“We are going to keep fighting until you make changes,” parent Tracy Kemp told Lubbock-Cooper ISD board members.
USDOE is already actively reviewing two complaints filed by Lubbock-Cooper ISD families in April 2022. The organizations hope the federal agency would enforce the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits entities that receive federal funding from allowing discrimination.
The Black families and advocacy groups want the federal government to order the school districts to revise their anti-harassment, anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies; train school and district staff on Title VI and appropriate school discipline practices; and create age-appropriate prevention programs for students.
They are also demanding systems for student and family input; alternatives to exclusionary discipline placement; an external evaluator to regularly audit the educational climate and effectiveness of policies; and annual reports posted online documenting the accounts of racial bullying and harassment.