MINNEAPOLIS – For at least two years, dozens of students at a Minnesota high school caricatured African-Americans in a homecoming week dress-up day by wearing low-slung pants, oversized sports jerseys and flashing gang signs, according to a federal lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed last week claims officials at Red Wing High School knew of the activity and had a duty to stop it because it created a racially hostile environment. It follows a state investigation that found school officials did not fulfill their obligation "to provide an educational atmosphere free of illegal racial discrimination."
The lawsuit said about 60 to 70 students were involved in the activity during the 2008 and 2009 school years. Red Wing is about 50 miles southeast of Minneapolis along the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the high school has about 880 students and is 89 percent white, 4 percent Hispanic, 3 percent black, 3 percent American Indian and 1 percent Asian.
The day was unofficially known in the school as Wednesday Wigger Day. The lawsuit said wigger is a pejorative word for a white person who imitates the mannerisms, language and clothes associated with black culture.
The dress-up days were part of a series of events for homecoming week. In 2009, the student council had officially designated Sept. 30 as Tropical Day, according to the lawsuit, but dozens of male and female upperclassmen unofficially designated it Wigger Day or Wangster Day instead.
The lawsuit said the students' behavior caused "extreme emotional distress including depression" to Quera Pruitt, one of the school's few black students.
"We can't get back what the school took from her," said Pruitt's attorney, Joshua Williams, "but under the relevant laws we can sue for money damages."
Pruitt's depression led her to quit track, cheerleading and the student council, the lawsuit says. She refused to participate in Dr. Martin Luther King Day activities, the lawsuit said, because "she felt the celebration was a farce" because the district didn't prevent the offensive dress-up day or punish those who participated. Pruitt, who graduated in 2010 and has since moved to Arkansas, is seeking at least $75,000 in damages.
Williams said he believes the offensive dress-up days began before 2008, but said he couldn't prove it. The lawsuit is limited to incidents in 2008 and 2009, when Pruitt was a student.
Superintendent Karsten Anderson disputed the allegations in a short written statement.
"The district denies the allegations that it has created a racially hostile environment and looks forward to meeting these allegations in court," Anderson wrote. "Since this concerns pending litigation, the district has no further comment at this time."
The state investigated after Pruitt complained to Minnesota Department of Human Rights in September 2010. The state ruled last month that there was probable cause to believe she was discriminated against. The investigative report said school officials didn't dispute the event happened in 2009, but claimed they could not have foreseen it.
The investigation did find evidence that school officials required some students to change out of the clothes and asked students to police their peers who had dressed offensively.
Maureen Costello, the director of the Teaching Tolerance program of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said schools frequently deal with racial insensitivity at school-spirit events, where students are supervised less closely than the classroom.
"Acting ghetto, young white men seem to think that is the funniest thing in the world," she said. "They don't understand that kind of joke is the worst kind of stereotype."
In the Canyons School District in Utah, for example, Costello's group is hosting tolerance workshops this week after a student wore a Ku Klux Klan-style hood to a pep rally in March. She also pointed to a case in Louisiana in Oct. 23, 2009, in which several white students put on black face during a pep rally to portray rivals from a predominantly black high school.
"It's cluelessness, which is not entirely an excuse," Costello said. "From my point of view, it is a failure of the education system to clue them in."