Debevoise Files Amicus Brief Supporting Students Challenging Racial Harassment at School

17 September 2021

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the National Women’s Law Center and a coalition of 32 public interest organizations in support of three Black and biracial children in Minnesota fighting unequal treatment and a hostile learning environment at Duluth Edison Charter Schools (DECS). Despite evidence of overt racial discrimination in the way that Black and biracial students have been treated at the school, DECS has asked the District Court to dismiss the lawsuit without a trial.

For years, DECS administrators have actively advised school faculty not to address racial epithets made by students against their Black and biracial classmates, yet when Black and biracial students pointed out racism or defended themselves against physical assaults, DECS officials were quick to carry out unfair disciplinary actions by writing them up, removing them from class or having them suspended. For example, DECS punished a Black/biracial girl for defending herself against three harassers and singled her out for dress code issues, causing her to lose class time while white students who violated the dress code were able to remain in class. In a particular display of cultural insensitivity, a DECS teacher cut a Black student’s locs without warning or consent.

The brief argues three crucial points:

  • Adultification bias – when individuals see Black children as less innocent and in need of care than white children – often leads educators to discipline Black students more often and more harshly for behaviors they would typically overlook or minimize with white students, leading to unequal educational opportunities.
  • Schools commit race discrimination when they mistreat Black students for how they wear their hair. For many, Afrocentric hairstyles—like dreadlocks or locs—are an expression of Black identity and culture. A lack of this understanding can lead to complicity in humiliating and disrespecting Black students that can affect their ability to learn.
  • Dress codes or uniform policies are steeped with race- and gender-based stereotypes which often lead schools to discriminatorily single out Black girls for dress code infractions. In addition to lost class time, rigid enforcement of dress codes can damage students’ self-esteem, psychological wellbeing, and sense of belonging in school.

The Debevoise team was led by litigation partner Courtney Dankworth and associates Adrian Gonzalez, William Mattessich and Eric Silverberg.