By: Suzie Glassman/NewsBreak Denver
(Castle Rock, CO) The families of four black or biracial students, including Jeramiah Ganzy, who stood before the school this past April and spoke about the hate speech he’d endured while attending Castle Rock Middle School, filed a lawsuit against the DougCo school district, school board, and middle school principal, John Veit, in federal court.
The suit alleges that “Despite explicit knowledge of the widespread hostile environment faced by the few minority students at their schools, Defendants Douglas County School District…and the Board of Education…acted with callous indifference of that knowledge and made virtually no effort to mitigate the racist hostilities, leaving these children to fend for themselves.”
The families argue they suffered physical, emotional, and economic injuries “in an amount to be proven at trial.”
According to Lacey Ganzy, mom to Jeramiah and Nevaeh, filing this lawsuit is an attempt to hold the school district accountable for not stating a clear definition of bullying vs. hate speech or offering a plan for how it would change the harassment minorities face.
“It comes down to money,” she said. “That’s the only thing that will force change.”
It’s unclear what the district might have known about the potential for a lawsuit. Still, attorney Crist Whitney of Rathod and Mohamedbhai, LLC, said they’d had plenty of time to prepare based on Ganzy's statements to the media.
“They’re hoping this goes away or that the community pokes the finger at her (Ganzy) and considers this incident a one-off situation. But we’ve learned that it’s not just a one-off,” said Whitney.
DougCo schools is the third largest district in Colorado. Yet, according to 2022-2023 data, only 1.4% of students are Black. The district employs three Black principals out of 234 and 43 Black teachers out of 3,624.
Jeramiah, Nevaeh, and two other students identified as C.M. and D.C. said at various times, other students called them cotton pickers, monkeys, and N-words, threatened them with violence, and forced them to endure racist tropes and memes at their expense.
A social studies teacher gave Nevaeh, who also spoke in front of the school board in April, the assignment to argue the benefit of Jim Crow laws (state statutes that legalized racial segregation and inflicted lasting harm on Blacks).
When she didn’t want to debate the laws’ merits, her teacher said she’d receive a failing grade. The teacher only relented at the last minute, giving Neveah little time to prepare.
Jeramiah endured SnapChat messages directed at him, calling him the N-word, and stood by while other white students threatened violence, like lynching and shooting.
The middle school’s bookkeeper also accused Jeramiah of stealing a water bottle and questioned his purchasing ability.
The suit also alleges a female student called C.M. an N-word to his face and that other students asked him for an “N-word pass,” meaning a free pass by which they could use the N-word around him with impunity.
And students told D.C. they could use the N-word because they had a “pass.” After all, they knew someone who was Black or had a Black friend.
The students also recounted discrimination from teachers who asked them to complete tasks like taking out the trash they didn’t ask White students to do and targeted them in ways they didn’t target their White peers.
Lack of condemnation by DougCo school district
Jeramiah and his family spoke at the April school board meeting because they felt the middle school wasn’t doing enough to discipline students they knew made threatening remarks.
“Rather than being a stable environment, they’re (schools) becoming places of hate, and the use of derogatory terms are rising among students. I ask that the district take hate speech more seriously,” said Jeramiah.
While the district’s superintendent Erin Kane, board president Mike Peterson, and deputy superintendent Danelle Hiatt all publicly expressed outrage over the incident saying the district has zero tolerance for bullying and harassment, Ganzy said she never got any communication directly from the three.
And suggestions from the middle school’s staff to protect Jeramiah from further harassment, like having a school resource officer escort him to class or move him to a middle school across town, felt ridiculous and inadequate.
As a result, Ganzy said she chose to make the hardest decision of her life and move out of Douglas County.
“I’m from Castle Rock, and I loved my life here,” she said. But, she no longer felt her son could be safe at any school in the district.
C.M.’s family detailed how C.M. experienced excruciating abdominal pain that sent him to the emergency room caused by the stress from the non-stop racial discrimination he suffered.
While Principal Veit spoke to the student who repeatedly called C.M. “monkey boy,” he never notified C.M.’s parents of the harassment. C.M.’s parents also elected to remove him from the school.
D.C.’s parents also met with Viet after they learned their son’s peers consistently called him a “monkey” and said that the administration never contacted them about the incident report he authored.
The lawsuit argues the district’s failure to take swift action shows deliberate indifference to the “racist abuse and harrassment” the students faced in direct violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Majority school board members oppose equity training
The families’ attorneys argue the personal political beliefs of school board members Mike Peterson, Becky Myers, Christy Williams, and Kaylee Winegar have left the district unprepared to handle racial discrimination.
After George Floyd’s death in 2020, students requested that the School Board add diversity and inclusion as a priority agenda item at the next board meeting, create an ongoing committee to review and improve curriculum, require all teachers and administrators to undergo implicit bias and anti-racism training, mandate teachers and administrators address issues of racism and systemic justice regularly, and offer tactical resources for students to recognize and address racism.
As a result, the district’s former superintendent Corey Wise and the school board at the time created the Equity Advisory Council and adopted an Educational Equity Policy.
But, during the next school board election, candidates Peterson, Myers, Winegar, and Williams attacked the equity policy calling it racist for bringing attention to racial inequities.
“During his campaign, Peterson made countless comments attacking “CRT” and condemning racially explicit awareness or training, including an implicit bias and race consciousness training,” the attorneys wrote.
The suit also provides examples where other candidates expressed similar hostility towards “racial minorities hiding behind equally coded language.”
Once in office, the four board members illegally voted to fire Wise, who later settled a lawsuit against the district alleging wrongful termination, and tasked the new superintendent with reviewing the equity policy and recommending changes.
When she returned with no recommended changes, Peterson provided his own, including additional definitions of diversity that were later passed in a 4-2 vote.