MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A south Alabama town that was the inspiration for the setting in Harper Lee's book "To Kill a Mockingbird" is finding itself as the backdrop for a real-life legal case involving allegations of racism at school.
The parents of several black junior high school students have filed a discrimination lawsuit claiming their children are subject to racial slurs and punished more harshly than white students at Monroeville Junior High School.
The lawsuit says black students at the county's only public junior high have been called slurs such as the "N-word," "filthy trash" and "black monkey." Their parents also say classes are segregated, with most black students being kept out of advanced placement and honors courses.
The action, originally filed in August, was revived this week by the American Civil Liberties Union in U.S. Southern District Court on behalf of nine students. It names the Monroe County Board of Education, Monroeville Junior High principal Lana Wilson, county superintendent Dennis Mixon, and the five-member school board.
"I just feel like every student should have the right to a decent education regardless of race, creed or color," said Tangelia Yates, a parent involved in the lawsuit whose son is an eighth grader. "We need to make sure that that happens within the Alabama school system, particularly Monroe County."
Monroeville, more than 80 miles southwest of Montgomery, is the hometown of "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee, whose coming-of-age tale discusses racism and injustice in a small Alabama town in the 1930s.
The carefully restored Old Courthouse, which was built in 1903, draws sold-out crowds to its auditorium each spring for a two-act adaptation of Lee's novel. The courthouse draws tourists who have fallen in love with the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which looks at racism through the eyes of a tenacious tomboy named Scout.
Everette Price, an attorney in nearby Brewton, has directed the "Mockingbird Players" in their springtime productions since 1994 and said it's easy to see why such allegations would be considered more egregious in a city with Monroeville's history.
"It's going to catch somebody's eyes faster in Monroeville than say if somebody made the same allegations in Brewton," Price said Friday.
The junior high school at the center of the lawsuit has 463 students from grades 6-8 and its population is 78 percent black and 22 percent white.
The parents say black students who got into fights with white students were given off-campus suspensions for longer periods of time while white students were given shorter in-school suspensions. They also said black students were disciplined for minor dress code violations like untucked shirts and for violations that weren't even in the code, such as loose or missing buttons.
The lawsuit also describes an incident in which a student was being teased by white classmates who called her a "black monkey." The student told the white teacher, who responded by saying "sit back down because you do look like a black monkey," the suit claims.
Students whose parents complained about the treatment were targeted for harsher punishment as a result, said Catherine Kim, an attorney for the ACLU's Racial Justice Project.
"There are policies and practices that serve to criminalize youth and push them out of classes — primarily children of color," Kim said.
Monroe County School system attorney Mark Boardman said the lawsuit's allegations were investigated and found to be "baseless." A review of discipline records showed no disciplinary disparity between races, he said, and the district is seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed.
"Three other lawyers have been involved in this case and decided — after learning the facts — not to take it," Boardman said.
Yates said her son's self-esteem has declined since he enrolled there as a sixth grader. Yates said she asked to attend her son's classes after he began having trouble and saw a black teacher telling students they were "lazy and slow."
The same teacher also gave her son an 'F' on a project in which students were to design a futuristic pair of pants. The teacher told Yates' son his project "looks like something a slave would wear," the mother said.