Four students of color who attended Douglas County schools allege in a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday that the school district and its leaders violated their right to an equal education by exhibiting “callous indifference” toward extensive racist bullying the children experienced and reported at school.
The lawsuit filed by the families of students who attended Castle Rock Middle School and Douglas County High School in U.S. District Court in Denver names as defendants the Douglas County School District, its elected school board and Castle Rock principal John Veit. The teens are unnamed in the complaint because they are minors.
The students’ attorney, Iris Halpern, confirmed that two of the teen plaintiffs include Jeramiah Ganzy and his sister Neveah Ganzy, who earlier this year told The Denver Post about racist bullying so egregious that it prompted Jeremiah to finish his school year online and the family to flee Castle Rock altogether.
The lawsuit claims the defendants violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from race-based discrimination and breached the students’ Fourteenth Amendment right to “equal protection of the laws.”
The students were regularly called racist slurs, threatened with lynching, subjected to comments about ethnic cleansing, referred to as “monkeys” and racially bullied in a Snapchat group comprised of more than 100 students, the lawsuit alleges.
Despite “explicit knowledge” of the “hostile environment” the students of color faced, the defendants made no effort to address the situation, the lawsuit said, and would sometimes punish the students of color if they fought back.
“It’s important to recognize how brave these children are for stepping forward,” Halpern said. “The harm and damage done to these students for the rest of their lives shouldn’t have happened. They’re depending on school administration to keep them safe and recognize their humanity and support them… It’s a disturbing situation to see adults in the school district, including school leadership, modeling racist behavior for their student body to adopt. We have to make sure there’s accountability from the top down because these students are learning from adults.”
Addressing racism in school district
The lawsuit alleges the Douglas County School District has a history of underserving minority students, noting that the population of more than 60,000 students and 4,440 educators is made up of about 1% Black students and 1% Black educators.
In 2020, students spoke before the Douglas County school board asking its members to address racism in the school community by requiring teachers and administrators to undergo anti-racism training, among other asks, the lawsuit said.
The district adopted a plan to address racism following the students’ pleas and created an educational equity policy that promised “to establish an inclusive culture to ensure all students, staff and community members feel safe and valued by increasing and embedding authentic and relevant learning opportunities and experiences involving inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility.”
But following the 2021 school board election, a new conservative majority took control of the board. The new members had run on a campaign that attacked the equity policy, suggesting that it was racist, the lawsuit said.
The conservative candidates erroneously stated the equity policy promoted critical race theory while some conservative members of the board said the equity policy was teaching students to feel shame and guilt for being white, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit alleges that the racially-hostile environment in the Douglas County School District was exacerbated after the heated 2021 school board election.
“Not brushed under the rug”
Neveah Ganzy was attending Douglas County High School during the 2022 school year when her social studies teacher had the students debate the pros and cons of the Jim Crow laws that enabled racial segregation. The teacher placed Neveah, the only Black student in the class, on the side supporting the Jim Crow laws, the lawsuit said.
Neveah also was routinely called racial slurs by students including “fat cotton picker,” the lawsuit said. School officials told Neveah they could not take action against the students using the slurs even after teachers vouched to overhearing them, according to the lawsuit.
Eventually, Neveah was pulled from school to avoid the racist bullying, the lawsuit said.
“I’m hoping to make it easier for everybody in Douglas County who is a minority or has been discriminated against,” Neveah told The Post in an interview this week. “Racism and discrimination needs to be taken way more seriously and talked about and not brushed under the rug. I hope all we’re doing is worth it so minorities can have a better and safer school year.”
The lawsuit alleges Jeramiah and two of his peers of color were subjected to repeated racist bullying at Castle Rock Middle School — an experience Jeramiah documented to school board officials in March when he emailed them his concerns about racial discrimination.
The students were often taunted with racist slurs such as “go back to the plantation, you cotton-picking monkey,” or asked where the students picked the cotton for their clothes, the lawsuit alleges. Students took pictures of one of the unnamed plaintiffs using the restroom at school and circulated the photos online, the lawsuit said. The incident prompted the victim to refuse to use the restroom at school, impacting his health, the lawsuit said.
All three student plaintiffs at Castle Rock Middle School reported the racist bullying they were experiencing, the lawsuit said, but only faced retaliation by students.
Misty Martin, mother to one of the unnamed students in the complaint, said the bullying of her son was so severe that a Castle Rock Middle School assistant principal asked to meet with her to suggest a safety plan for her son that included keeping him after class in order to dismiss him when the hallways were empty.
The stress on Martin’s son was so great that he began suffering from health problems that landed him in the emergency room, she said.
“I want to see that racial bullying is considered hate speech and that the district will address it in policy so that the next time a student is called a racial name of any kind, there is appropriate discipline,” Martin told The Post.
“I wore this scarlet letter”
Parents of the bullied students said they believe only one student in the Snapchat group was punished, the lawsuit said. Screenshots taken from the Snapchat group after it was reported to the school show students who used racist slurs threatening the plaintiffs for reporting the group and lamenting that the Black students had ruined their lives.
“MY WHOLE LIKE (sic) IS RUINED MY BLOOD IS ON YOUR (expletive) HANDS” one response read.
Eventually, Jeramiah and Martin’s son were pulled out of Castle Rock Middle School before the academic year ended for their safety.
Jeramiah and his family went public with their story and felt they had to leave Castle Rock to protect themselves from further abuse, said Lacey Ganzy, mother of Jeramiah and Neveah.
“I wore this scarlet letter until we got out of the town,” Lacey Ganzy said. “Just based off the reaction I was getting that were doing this, I feared my for my kids’ safety. Some of my kids lost their jobs because of this. We were basically forced out of town. I hope this paves the way for other people to speak out and for change.”
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