A southwest suburban mother says her biracial son endured years of harassment because of his race, including being called the N-word and physical attacks, such as being punched by another student.
Melissa Zirbel filed a federal lawsuit Thursday accusing the school district of depriving her son of his right to an education. He is African American and white.
Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, schools must prohibit discrimination based on race, among other things. But Zirbel said her son was subjected to verbal and physical harassment between third and eighth grade this past school year, despite making numerous complaints to administrators at Wilmington School District 209U in Will County, about 60 miles southwest of Chicago. She is seeking compensation for emotional distress and for expenses for their move out of the district.
“As things were getting worse, I kept making complaints, reaching out to the school on numerous occasions,” said Zirbel. “You’re asking me to sit back and watch you guys abuse my kids and not protect them.”
In addition to name calling, some students made racist comments describing Zirbel’s son as a slave and saying he’d end up in jail “like the rest of your people,” according to the lawsuit. He was physically threatened, once chased by students wielding baseball bats.
A person who answered the phone at the Wilmington School District office said no one was available to comment on the lawsuit and that most administrators were on vacation.
The student population in the district is more than 90% white. Zirbel said other students of color were subjected to racist remarks, too, including her daughter who has already graduated high school.
Zirbel said an assistant principal responded to her complaints on a number of occasions by saying it was one student’s word against another and nothing could be done. He would not call the students’ parents, he said, because he couldn’t tell parents how to raise their kids.
On other occasions, staff made excuses for the racist behavior, including that one student had a behavioral problem. Zirbel said her son was sometimes scolded for trying to defend himself.
Aneel Chablani is chief counsel for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. He’s part of the team representing Zirbel and her son.
“[The district’s] efforts or any surface attempts to intervene were completely ineffective,” Chablani said. “The harassment and the racially focused bullying continued for years despite continued efforts by the student and his mother to notify district officials this was happening.”
Zirbel said her son is bright, but he couldn’t concentrate with the constant bullying and his grades and mental health took a hit. She said eventually even their relationship became strained.
“There’s a lot of built up anger with me, the school, with the things that happened to him,” she said. “He never understood when he was littler about how I was trying to help the situation.”
Zirbel’s son attended an alternative school for his last semester of eighth grade. She said he felt safer there than at the traditional school. They recently moved out of Wilmington to a district that is more diverse. They’re in the process of choosing a high school for the fall.
In 2017, Zirbel filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. According to an education department spokesman, the school district entered into a voluntary agreement to resolve the racial harassment allegations before the department completed its investigation. The district agreed to implement diversity training as part of that deal.
Attorney Chablani said no matter the demographics of an area, all school districts should embrace diversity, equity and inclusion training. He said more school districts are making an effort, but there’s still a long way to go.
“For some districts, certainly the efforts that may or may not be underway are still problematic when students aren’t receiving a proper education or unable to take advantage of opportunities because of hostile environment due to race or nationality or any other protective class,” he said.
Zirbel said she hopes the lawsuit will bring justice for her son and prevent harassment for other students. She said it’s also important for the kids who are doing the bullying.
“You’re failing to prepare all these students. You’re almost acknowledging and stating the behavior is OK when it’s not acceptable,” she said. “It’s not acceptable to bully kids or treat people differently based on the color of their skin.”