Upland families take legal action against district after students receive cards with racial slurs

Lawyers said one child responsible for racist behavior is the child of a teacher.

Anabel Munoz Image
Tuesday, February 28, 2023
Upland families take legal action against district over racist attacks
Some parents of students at Pepper Tree Elementary School in Upland said their children received racist cards with alarming illustrations, including one that read "My favorite cotton picker" and "Golden N-word pass."

UPLAND, Calif. (KABC) -- Parents of students at Pepper Tree Elementary School in Upland are taking public and legal action over racist attacks against their children, including verbal taunting and racist illustrations handed to one student at the beginning of Black History Month.

"That 'my favorite cotton picker' card was one of the two cards that Chloe received," said Marlene Reynoso, adding that another classmate gave her daughter a different card that read "To Chloe: You're my favorite monkey."

Another parent said their child's name appeared on one of the cards but was crossed out. Most of the students are in the 6th grade.

"That made me feel like, I didn't actually know that they thought of me that way," said Chloe.

According to lawyers who are now representing four families with similar experiences, the racist attacks against students have gone on for months, and in some cases, years.

"During COVID, this young child started to receive links during the Zoom classes," said attorney James Bryant, who went on to explain the link displayed a picture of a so-called "golden N-word pass."

"They've been passing this out and having Black children --- whether African American or African -- sign these things so they'd be the "golden" N-word versus the rest of the slave-like children," said Bryant.

Lawyers said one child responsible for racist behavior is the child of a teacher. They also describe a lack of action from administrators to incidents parents have brought forward.

"This time last year, when my son was called 'monkey' in class, the only reason why we stopped with our complaint to the principal is because she assured my wife and I. She looked us in the face and said there will be training," said Rome Douglas, who has several children enrolled in the school. "I found out two weeks ago, none of that ever happened."

Douglas and his wife said they have kept e-mail records of experiences they have raised to school officials over the years that began with teacher bias and microaggressions and has escalated to these latest incidents.

Christopher Newman said his son was disciplined for his response to racist attacks, but not the other way around.

"The evidence that was presented against him was a redacted screenshot of an image that only had what he said in reply to countless images and words," Newman said. "They said they did an investigation and they could not find any wrongdoing by the aggressor who distributed these cards."

The school said disciplinary action was taken in response to the drawings and that the district has since reopened an investigation due to reports of "persistent behaviors."

The school sent out a letter to parents roughly a week and a half after they were made aware of the drawings and said the following day, they began visits to classrooms to address the impact of racist bullying.

"It wasn't until it was social media and the news media started bringing attention to it," said Reynoso.

In a community update video posted on Feb. 17, Upland Unified Board President, Sherman Garnett said in part, "As a leader and a representative of the Upland Unified School District, I want to make it perfectly clear that we have a strict zero-tolerance policy on any type of hate speech, harassment or discriminatory practices, behaviors, racial slurs, and any reports of these actions will be investigated thoroughly and immediately."

Kabene Gabremariam's son received a "golden N-word pass" in September. Gabremariam's son asked her what the "N-word" meant.

An immigrant from Ethiopia, Gabremariam, had to search for its meaning online.

"After I learned what it means - N-word - my heart breaks," she said. "It took me a couple of days to explain to my son what it really means."

She encouraged her son to channel his experience into change. He included it in a campaign video for student council in which he focused on anti-bullying awareness.

"I was told by the school that he cannot put his experience in the speech," said Gabremariam.

The families are now taking legal action against the school district. Attorneys are filing claim for damages on behalf of the four families. The school district will have 45 days to respond before a potential lawsuit follows.

Lawyers said they are calling on the California Attorney General's office to investigate and want to see the termination of some of the school staff.

"If the Upland School District didn't think it's going to be a problem then, it is going to be a massive problem," said Bryant.