Report validates discrimination against Wausau student

WAUSAU – The attorney hired by the Wausau School Board to independently look into the controversy over a band instructor’s treatment of a gay Asian American student has concluded that the teacher violated school policies against discrimination.Further, the report found that Wausau East school principal Deb Foster’s “lack of urgency in following up with the family and not developing a safety plan” was a failure to both the school and the family. While neither the report nor any other statement mentions any remedial action regarding Foster, the district sent an email to parents and staff at Wausau East late Thursday announcing that she would not be serving as principal this coming school year. She will be serving in “another administrative role,” the district said.Robert Perkins, the band director, already left his job in early June after weeks of unrest regarding his conduct.On April 5, the student and his family filed a complaint with the district alleging Perkins directed both racial and ethnic slurs toward him. On April 26, the district released its conclusion — that while Perkins’ conduct was unprofessional and insensitive, the language did not rise to the level of discrimination or harassment.That infuriated the student’s parents — Manee and Twan Vongphakdy — many members of the school community, the Wausau Asian American community, and even public figures such as the mayor. Public meetings were held, other victims of Perkins’ conduct came forward, and 65 faculty members signed a petition of support for the student’s family. Manee Vongphakdy is a longtime guidance counselor at the school.USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporting led to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction opening an investigation into Perkins’ teaching license. The Vongphakdys’ filed the appeal of the district’s original decision determining there was no harassment.Ultimately, the school board hired Buelow Vetter law firm to re-examine the entire issue and how it was handled. On Monday, Alana Leffler of the law firm, presented her findings.She substantiated the Vongphakdy family’s complaint that Perkins engaged in racist and sexist harassment of their son. Leffler’s investigation also revealed that the administration mishandled the response to the complaint.Leffler’s investigation substantiated claims that Mr. Perkins used words that are anti-Asian slurs to describe the sound of cymbals in his classroom. She could not substantiate that the use of that term was racially motivated, but the investigation did bring a new detail to light: Perkins told another teacher that those words “sounded like dinner conversation at (the student’s) house.””Attorney Leffler found, through her interviews, Perkins told a teacher the ‘onomatopoeias sounding like dinner conversation at (the student’s) house’ spoke directly to Perkins’ credibility,” said Jenny Yang, the student’s aunt.Another new insight in this case came directly from Perkins. In his statements to Leffler, Perkins said he often overheard students using a homophobic slur, instead of reporting the use of the word, he joined in on jokes about how they must be referencing the bassoon, which translates to a similar word in German.A witness reported that not only did he use the slur himself, he taught his students the German translation for bassoon, which added to the hostile environment Perkins cultivated in his classrooms.”Perkins admitted to making that joke in response to students using the word instead of addressing it as a harassment issue,” said Elisabeth Lambert of the Wisconsin Education Law and Policy Hub, who has been representing the Vongphakdy family. “He did not report it, he did not treat the use of that slur as a problem.”The investigation also substantiated a comment Perkins made to the Vongphakdys’ son in March in front of his classmates. Perkins was accused of telling students to be sure they got fitted for their tuxes, “unless (the son) wants to wear a dress.””It was more than likely intended to be a joke at (the student’s) expense,” Lambert said. “It caused (the student) to feel targeted and emasculated and upset.”(USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin has not named the son throughout its coverage because, even though he is well known and easily identifiable in this case, his parents fear it would exacerbate his anxiety and open him up to broader social media harassment.)Perkins told his students that he held discriminatory attitudes toward Hmong people when he was younger. The Vongphakdys are Hmong American. Nearly one of every nine Wausau residents is of Asian descent, far and away the largest non-white demographic group. This statement was also substantiated.Other findings that were not ultimately tied to the determination, but were related to investigation and were considered substantiated include the following:Perkins charged toward the Vongphakdys’ son in the hallway in a threatening manner. While this was substantiated, it could not be determined this was motivated by the Vongphakdys’ son being part of a protected class.Perkins made inappropriate comments toward other students of protected status. Similar to the homophobic slurs, Perkins did not report this.Perkins also made inappropriate comments against a student with disabilities in front of the student’s peers. In a written statement to USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin, the Vongphakdys’ son said the following: “One of my favorite teachers had told me to ‘speak my truth,’ and that is exactly what I did. It has been an excruciating and devastating wait to receive this clarity. I feel this is just the tip of the iceberg, but now, I may take a breath and continue on my journey of recovery, knowing that justice has won yet another day. I hope the closed-minded and the ignorant can learn from such experiences, as they shape the lives of children that will soon power this planet.”He will be attending the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this fall.Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. She welcomes story tips and feedback. You can reach her at [email protected] or view her Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is dealing with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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