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by Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capital Dispatch
June 16, 2023
A teacher has filed a lawsuit accusing the Ottumwa school district of encouraging students’ racist behavior by failing to impose sufficient discipline for such conduct.
Robert Bender is suing the Ottumwa Community School District in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa, and is seeking unspecified damages related to alleged harassment, discrimination, retaliation and violations of the federal Civil Rights Act. Also named as defendants are Jerry Miller, a school principal, and Dana Warnecke, an assistant school principal.
Bender, who is Black, began working for the district in July 2021 as a behavior instructor teacher and the high school’s junior varsity boys’ basketball coach. Since then, he has also held the position of junior high school girls’ track coach and he currently works for the district as a high school special education teacher.
In his lawsuit, Bender alleges that from the time he first began working for the district in 2021, he has been the target of racially motivated abuse and harassment by students. In early September 2021, he alleges, a student referred to him using the n-word. While several of co-workers witnessed the incident, they did not challenge the student’s behavior, the lawsuit alleges.
According to the lawsuit, two more incidents of a similar nature occurred in the weeks that followed, and after the matter was reported to Miller and Warnecke, the student who was involved was suspended for either a half day or a full day.
Over the next three months, the lawsuit claims, Bender was routinely referred to by the same racial epithet uttered by different students in front of other district employees, administrators and students.
During that time, Bender also received sticky notes with racist messages written on them, according to the lawsuit. Bender reported the conduct to Miller and Warnecke. The matter was referred to the district’s executive director of human resources, who assured Bender such behavior would not be tolerated, according to the lawsuit.
“Unfortunately, the lack of discipline emboldened the students, and they continued to refer to Mr. Bender as a “n—–” in front of staff and administration,” the lawsuit alleges. “One student in particular has repeatedly used the racist term in reference to Mr. Bender. The student was eventually sent to ‘timeout’ for his use of the term, but Mr. Bender was the adult in charge of supervising the student. Throughout the duration of the timeout, the student continued to use the term directed toward Mr. Bender.”
In March 2022, Miller allegedly reassigned Bender from a “behavioral teacher” to an “inclusion teacher” for the 2022-23 school year. The reassignment was reportedly because Bender had allowed a student to walk out of his class – a common occurrence in the district, the lawsuit claims.
That same month, a student at a bus stop allegedly directed the n-word at Bender in front of staff and parents and, a few weeks later, used the word again in front of Miller. The student was not removed from class and, to Bender’s knowledge, was not disciplined, the lawsuit states.
At around the same time, other students were being suspended for three days – one for slamming a door in the face of an assistant principal and one for calling a teacher “fat man.” According to the lawsuit, Miller later told Bender that while he took no offense to the n-word, he understood why Bender would.
The lawsuit alleges the defendants enabled students to harass and humiliate Bender through the students’ “severe and pervasive” daily use of racial slurs and racially charged language.
The district has yet to file a response to the lawsuit. The Iowa Capital Dispatch was unable to reach the district’s communications specialist for comment on the lawsuit.
Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.