This Tennessee Mother Filed a $2.5 Million Lawsuit Because of Racial Discrimination at School

Erika Qualls says her son faced regular racial harassment at Church Hill Middle School, including being called the N-word and a "monkey." She's suing the Hawkins County Board of Education in response. 

Boy looks sad on school bus

As parents and caregivers, it's our priority to keep our children safe. But in the instances when they encounter harm, it's challenging to know what course of action is best. Especially when that harm occurs in a place where our children should feel safe, like at school.

One mother, Erika Qualls, decided that the best way to protect her son from what she says was a racially hostile environment was suing the Tennessee school he attended. Qualls issued a $2.5 million lawsuit against Church Hill Middle School and the Hawkins County Board of Education because she says that her son, who hasn't been named in the lawsuit, was harrassed there.

Qualls says her son is in the eighth grade and experienced ongoing racism from his peers with little to no action from school faculty and administrators. Kingsport Times-News reports that the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Greeneville describes the attacks in detail. It also says three of the attacks were captured on video and posted online by students.

" [Qualls' son] was regularly subjected to a pervasive, racially-hostile school environment in which he was repeatedly referred to by the 'N-word'; subjected to a barrage of other racial epithets, such as 'monkey;' shown hate-based depictions of a KKK member holding a torch and noose; taunted as the brunt of a 'slave auction;' chased and ridiculed with a stuffed monkey; and shown depictions of African-American caricatures being stabbed and shot," the lawsuit states.

She says she informed school administrators and Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson that her son was "regularly subjected to a pervasive, racially-hostile school environment." In her lawsuit, she says her eighth-grade son is one of less than five Black students in a school with a population of around 400. She also says her concerns weren't taken seriously despite calling it to officials on several occasions.

Qualls' lawsuit addresses many incidents but says the abuse began on September 8, 2021, with a white student walking into her son's classroom, shoving him, and yelling, "Fight me, you [expletive] monkey!" Later that day, the same student called him racial slurs several times and slapped him in the face, including in front of the school faculty. When her son started to defend himself, a fight occurred. When the faculty broke it up, he was sent to the office. The white student was allowed to get on the school bus to go home.

Qualls son was questioned in the office and she wasn't allowed to speak to him. She says during that time, the principal suggested he was responsible for the incident.

"Assistant Principal Natasha Bice demanded that [Qualls' son] tell her what he said to the white student that [caused] the assault, and why [Qualls' son] didn't just not walk away," says the lawsuit. "In what appeared as a transparent effort to shift the blame, she also demanded to know what names [Qualls' son] called the white student to prompt him to use the "N-word" or to cause him to come into his classroom, shove [Qualls' son] and call him racial names."

From then forward, Qualls's made several attempts to get solutions from the school district as her son was targeted, including a "Monkey of the Month Campaign" in which white students entered the boys' restroom and held a mock slave auction and sold her son to the highest bidder. "By March 28, 2022, Ms. Qualls had reported to administrators six (6) racially motivated incidents in twelve (12) school days," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says the school system showed "deliberate indifference" to her concerns. But Hixson, the Hawkins County Director of Schools, says the allegations are false and that they work to ensure all students feel safe at school, regardless of race.

"We vehemently deny that our school system tolerates racial discrimination or harassment of any kind," says Hixson noting they investigate allegations and assign discipline the same for all students. "Hawkins County Schools and the many educators who work within our school system strive to create an environment where all students—regardless of their race—feel safe and welcome."

The case is still unfolding. If true, the story will be the latest account of many instances of racism and discrimination in our school system.

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