Lawsuit alleges Douglas County School District failed to protect students from racial harassment

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Jenny Brundin/CPR News
Lacey Ganzy stands with her children, Jeramiah and Nevaeh. The family filed a lawsuit against the Douglas County School District for failing to protect students from racism and bullying.

The families of four Black and biracial students who attended schools in Douglas County have filed a federal civil lawsuit against the district, alleging district and school administrators failed to take adequate measures to protect the students from severe and pervasive racism and bullying.

The suit is is based on Title VI, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

The lawsuit also includes a special equal protection claim that the racial hostility and harassment experienced by Jeramiah Ganzy, 14, and two other Black students at Castle Rock Middle School happened so often and in so many different forms that it deprived them of equal educational opportunities. 

“It means you were harassed so bad[ly] that in essence because of your race, you didn’t get to participate in the same educational experience as white students,” said Iris Halpern, the families’ attorney. 

A district monitoring report from May showed significant gaps between how Black and white students felt in school and whether they were bullied. It also showed big gaps in how they were disciplined, with 41 percent of Black students disciplined versus 16 percent of whites during the 2021-2022 school year.

There is a third claim against the middle school principal John Veit, alleging he neglected or refused to stop further racial harassment that included a student white supremacy group; threats of violence; students circulating humiliating racist tropes, memes and images of Black students; and racial profiling by school staff. 

The law firm representing Ganzy and the students also represented former Douglas County school district superintendent Corey Wise. In April, the school district paid Wise more than $832,000 to settle a discrimination and retaliation complaint against the district after he claimed he was fired for his advocacy for students with disabilities and students of color and his support for an equity policy.

The lawsuit also includes Jeramiah’s sister, Nevaeh, 16, based on her own experiences at Douglas County High School. The lawsuit alleges a teacher, for a class debate there, tried to make Nevaeh argue the benefits of  Jim Crow laws that legalized racial segregation.

The children’s mother, Lacey Ganzy, said she wants to hold the school district accountable for the prolonged racism her son endured at his middle school. She doesn’t believe a resolution was reached nor did Jeramiah get a response from the district after he sent an email asking the district to take hate speech more seriously and address racism in schools.

“We're looking for that clear definition between bullying and hate crime,” she said. “And I don't think that we've received any acknowledgment that that change is coming.”

Lacey Ganzy removed Jeramiah from school and he finished the year online, and then once she had saved enough money, she says she moved the family out of Castle Rock for their safety a month ago.

‘Constantly racially profiled and offended’

In March, Jeramiah sent a letter via the district’s feedback form describing the racism he’d experienced and asked for help. He’d tried, unsuccessfully, he said, to get help from a teacher but staff didn’t come to his aid when the discrimination took place.

CPR reviewed screenshots from a group Snapchat used by more than 100 students beginning in February to target and bully Black and biracial students with racially derogatory and offensive slurs. 

One student posted that Black people should be removed from the planet and called for bringing back the Holocaust. Another asked for a “buckshot” to shoot a Black person, using a racial epithet. There is also an image in the chat of a brown piglet that includes a racial epithet beneath it.

“They called him a monkey every single day, they called him a n***** every day,” said Lacey Ganzy earlier this year. “It went on and on and on. It’s appalling.”

“I have constantly been racially profiled and offended by students at CRMS. They often use racial slurs near me and many others thinking it's funny, and it makes me feel uncomfortable and unwanted in my school,” he wrote in his letter to the district.  

After school officials were told about the racist messages in the group chat, students contacted Jeramiah and threatened to lynch him.

“The students reported it many times when it was happening and there wasn't really significant action taken or not anything that was proportionate to getting the conduct to stop,” said Halpern.

Two other Black students in Jeramiah’s learning pod were also targeted in the chat group.

The boys experienced verbal insults, racist jokes and threats of violence, according to the lawsuit. Some students made fun of Black History Month, using it as an opportunity to ridicule Black students. 

After one student reported a racial slur, he became a target of “relentless retaliation by other students, who took every opportunity to humiliate or express anger at him for reporting the incident,” the lawsuit states. That included trying to trip and push him and taunting him. 

The retaliation was so relentless that the school’s assistant principal suggested a safety plan which included keeping the boy after class and dismissing him when the halls were empty, the suit states. The stress from the non-stop racial discrimination caused another boy, known only as C.M. in the lawsuit filing, such excruciating abdominal pain that his parents took him to the emergency room.

The lawsuit states that all three boys reported various instances of racial harassment to school officials, to little effect.

The lawsuit alleges that the district and school board acted with “callous indifference” despite explicit knowledge of the hostile environment. It states that the school’s principal failed to properly train, monitor, supervise, and discipline teachers and students about racist harassment and abuse or to investigate and respond to such allegations.

District and school response

The district acknowledges it received Jeramiah’s letter in March and said that it was sent promptly to the school principal and the administrator who oversees Castle Rock schools. The principal responded to the district in an email, “[i]t is unfortunate to hear. We are working on this, but I have a feeling it will be a long-term project for us.”

After learning about a white supremacy group that had been harassing the boys, a school official told Lacey Ganzy she needed to report it to the school board and media because “he’d been trying to stop the racism but everything was being swept under the rug,” according to the lawsuit.

After the Ganzy family first testified at an April school board meeting about the racism they’d experienced, Superintendent Erin Kane told the board that she spoke with the family to “make sure that our system is addressing their needs.”

Screenshot of DougCo Board Meeting
A 14-year-old Castle Rock Middle School student testifies before the Douglas County School board with his mother, Lacey Ganzy, at his side on April 25.

At a later meeting in May, Kane said, “I just want to make it really clear, again, that racial slurs and discrimination are absolutely unacceptable in our school district.” She later said multiple students were suspended.

Lacey Ganzey said she appreciated the statement but wanted action on deeper systemic issues in the district. She asked for the district to treat hate speech and bullying differently, a victim advocate for students, and in-depth diversity training for teachers, students and school staff.

Officials said Castle Rock Middle School students participated in harassment and bullying presentations and district leaders have worked with the school on other behavior strategies for next year, including discussing bullying, kindness, and harassment.

The school board’s role in the lawsuit

The lawsuit alleges the racial harassment took place during a time when political tensions and divisions polarized the district, and it argues, were stoked by the conservative school board majority.

The four board members ran on a platform that focused heavily on attacking the district’s equity policy, replete with what the complaint describes as “dog whistling” about the dangers of including or empowering communities of color at the expense of white people.

The lawsuit alleges Board president Mike Peterson frequently used coded language such as CRT (critical race theory) and Marxism and often condemned the district’s implicit bias and race consciousness training to “rile up” parents to engage in similar behavior, said Halpern. 

“It has infected the overall culture and population in the school district,” she said. “One of the disturbing elements here is even after this all broke, you have parents testifying, basically furthering the injury to Jeremiah and these other students. They're saying hateful things in public. They're not believing these students.”

The complaint said majority board members never condemned the racism at Castle Rock Middle School. Nor did board members try to encourage their supporters to be less incendiary in their public remarks, said Halpern.

“Right now, people's vitriol is not targeted at the government,” she said. “It is targeted at teenagers. It is targeted at historically marginalized teenagers in a majoritarian white community where racism is being fomented. I think we have to focus on what the harm of that is.”

Difficult summer for the Ganzy family

Instead of a summer filled with Elitch Gardens, zip lining and hanging out with their friends, Ganzey said many former peers rebuffed her children. Planning for the lawsuit has placed even more strain on them, she added. A community member set up a GoFundMe in order to assist the family in moving out of Castle Rock.

“I do believe that they (her children) feel that it's the right thing to do,” said Ganzy. “I just feel like it came with more adversity and more trials than we were anticipating.”

Both Jeramiah and his sister Nevaeh both hope the lawsuit shines a spotlight on what’s been happening in schools.

 “I’m hoping some awareness comes from this and that people choose to open their eyes and view racial discrimination as hurtful,” Jeramiah said.  

And Lacey Ganzy has a singular wish for her children this upcoming school year.

“I just hope that they're surrounded by a community that's more accepting of any child with differences at all, whether it be disability, sexuality or race. And I hope that it's a fresh start where they can just have a little bit of hope and see some good in people again.”

This story will be updated.

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