Suit charges school officials with failure to stop student racial harassment and bullying

Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights cites years of inaction by district, violation of state and federal civil rights laws

CHICAGO – In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, July 11 in the Northern District of Illinois, a family represented by Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights charges that Wilmington District 209-U school administrators in refused to intervene on behalf of a 14-year-old bi-racial student who suffered racist ridicule, harassment, and physical attacks throughout elementary and middle school.

The complaint charges that the incidents began in 2013 when the student entered second grade at LJ Stevens Intermediate School and lasted through early in his 8th grade year in Wilmington Middle School. One of only a very few children of color in the Will County district, he was repeatedly called the “n-word” and referred to as a slave, chased with a baseball bat, threatened, and physically attacked. After years of inaction from school staff, his mother filed a formal complaint in 2017 with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”). That failed to bring any meaningful action from District 209U, the suit says.

 “It’s not ok for children to face bullying at school especially when a student is targeted because of their race, like my son was,” said Melissa Zirbel, the mother of the child.  “When my son spoke up, it was the classroom teacher who chose to seat him with his tormentors. It was the assistant principal who asked my son to leave school early. It was the principal who told us over and over again there was nothing to be done while my son got abused. I do not accept that for my child or anyone else’s.”

 Chief Counsel Aneel Chablani of Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights said: “When her child was bullied because of his race, Ms. Zirbel did everything we expect a parent to do: She reported it to the right people. But over the course of five years, those with the power to end this harassment chose to ignore her pleas and single out her son for punishment. This is about school officials enabling racism.  It’s been 65 years since the Supreme Court ended racial segregation in schools, yet we continue to see students of color subjected to hostile environments. This cannot be tolerated and has to change now.”

 Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is alleging violations of both state and federal civil rights laws designed to protect people from racial discrimination and guarantee equal protection of the law. The student and his mother are seeking compensatory and punitive damages as a result of the actions by the district to make sure other students of color in the district do not face the same discrimination and harassment he did.

Editor's note: Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is an organization of civil rights lawyers and advocates working since 1969 to secure racial equity and economic opportunity for all. We provideThe orgnization provides legal representation through partnerships with the private bar, and we collaborate with grassroots organizations and other advocacy groups to implement community-based solutions that advance civil rights. More info.