A Black teacher has sued an Iowa school district for failing to discipline its students for their racist behavior.
Robert Bender claims in the federal lawsuit against the Ottumwa Community School District in Ottumwa, Iowa, that he was called the N-word on numerous occasions by students, and officials failed to intervene or punish them thoroughly.
Bender began working at Ottumwa High School in 2021 as a behavior instructor teacher as well as the basketball coach for the boys’ junior varsity team. Bender claims that he was first called the N-word in early September 2021 by a student. Lawsuit documents obtained by Atlanta Black Star show the coach alleges that several of his colleagues heard the racial slur but failed to discipline the student.
School principal Jerry Miller and assistant principal Dana Warnecke are also named as defendants in the lawsuit filed on June 15.
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Bender alleges that between late September 2021 and early October 2021, he was subjected to another student calling him the N-word multiple times, which was also witnessed by several of Bender’s colleagues. The incident was reported to Miller and Warnecke, and the student was suspended from school for a partial or full day, he claims.
However, over the next two months, Bender was called the N-word multiple times by students in front of other staff and students “on at least a weekly basis,” according to the complaint.
The basketball coach also received racist messages on sticky notes and reported that harassment to Miller and Warnecke, according to the lawsuit. In January 2022, Bender also notified the executive director of human resources and operations at the school, David Harper, and was told racism would not be tolerated at the school, which is described by U.S. News & World Report as approximately 58 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, and 6 percent Black.
However, the lack of discipline “emboldened” the students, according to the lawsuit, and multiple students began calling Bender the N-word, with one student continuing to call Bender the racial slur while the student was being disciplined in a “timeout” for using the slur.
Another student called Bender the N-word and claimed that the teacher “must be one since other students were referring to Mr. Bender using the term and were not being disciplined,” the lawsuit contends.
It accuses the school district of violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Iowa Civil Rights Act by failing to protect Bender.
“Defendants subjected Plaintiff to unwelcome conduct by enabling students to harass and humiliate him through the use of racial slurs and racially charged language,” reads the lawsuit. “This conduct was severe and pervasive. On a daily basis. Plaintiff was subjected
to racist harassment from his students and was offered no relief from Defendants.”
Miller reassigned Bender in March 2022 from being a behavioral teacher to an inclusion teacher for the 2022-23 school year, citing Bender letting a student walk out of class, despite other teachers not being re-assigned for having “five to ten students” walk out of classrooms on a daily basis, the lawsuit claims.
Bender also says in the lawsuit that a student was given a three-day suspension for slamming the door in the face of an assistant principal around the same time he was called the N-word, but the student who used the racial slur “received no real punishment.” A student was also suspended for three days for calling another teacher “fat man.”
On March 29, a student in Bender’s class was suspended after calling Miller and other staff members the N-word and “p—y.”
Miller reportedly told Bender that he was not offended by the N-word but understood why Bender was. Bender was given his choice to move to any other position and became a special education teacher at the high school.
Bender first filed a discrimination complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission on April 4, 2022.
The lawsuit states that Bender suffered from “mental and emotional distress, fear, anguish, anxiety, humiliation, intimidation” and “embarrassment” and was prescribed anxiety medication by his doctor.
Bender is seeking compensation and punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to punish Defendants and to deter them and others from similar conduct in the future.” He is also seeking payment for attorney’s fees and expenses.
The school’s district released a statement to KCCI News denying they enabled harassment against Bender.
“Student discipline is highly contextual and individualized to the student, the behavior, and the circumstances. It is also confidential,” said the statement. “The District takes seriously the rights of its students and teachers and will respond to the lawsuit through its lawyers.”