SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Black woman hired by a northern Utah school district to investigate racial harassment complaints the year after a 10-year-old Black student died by suicide says that she, too, experienced discrimination from district officials.
Joscelin Thomas, a former coordinator in the Davis School District’s equal opportunity office, alleges in a federal lawsuit that district staff treated her “as if she were stupid,” accused her of having a substandard work ethic and denied her training and mentorship opportunities that were offered to her white colleagues.
“From the beginning of her employment, Dr. Thomas was treated differently than her lighter-skinned and non-Black coworkers and was subject to a hostile work environment,” the complaint states.
Thomas was part of a wave of new hires in 2022 after the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the district in a settlement agreement to create an office tasked with investigating and addressing reports of racial harassment. The order stemmed from a 2021 federal investigation, which uncovered widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students in the district just north of Salt Lake City, including hundreds of documented uses of the N-word and other derogatory epithets over a five-year period.
The civil rights probe found that Black students, who make up about 1% of the district’s 74,000 students, had been disciplined more harshly than their white peers for similar behavior. District officials admitted to federal investigators that years of discipline data demonstrated a trend of staff treating students of color differently than white students, but the district had done nothing to correct the disparities, federal investigators said.
Several Black students had also told investigators that their white peers referred to them as apes, made monkey noises at them in class and told them that their skin looked like dirt or feces. Inappropriate comments about slavery and lynching sometimes went unpunished, and Black students recalled being told by their peers, “Go pick cotton” and “You are my slave.”
The district’s racial issues came to a head just two weeks later when Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, a Black and autistic fifth grader, died by suicide after her family said she was relentlessly bullied by her classmates at Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake. The 10-year-old’s parents blamed her death on what they called an inadequate response by school administrators, whom they said were aware of the bullying but did nothing to stop it.
Tichenor, the only Black student in her class, had kids regularly calling her the N-word, telling her she was smelly and teasing her for being autistic, according to a lawsuit filed by the family. District officials admitted last year that school staff had mistreated the girl and agreed to pay her family a $2 million settlement after initially defending how it handled the bullying allegations. They also announced a separate $200,000 settlement shared between three Black students who said they experienced daily racial harassment.
The school district updated its harassment policy following the federal investigation and Tichenor’s death, and it launched an anonymous online platform for any student, parent or staff member to report incidents of harassment or discrimination, spokesperson Christopher Williams said on Thursday.
Thomas was among those tasked with investigating the anonymous reports, but her attorney, Katie Panzer, said Thomas’ own experiences call into question whether the district has made any real effort to change its culture.
“Our hope is that through our efforts to address the violation of Dr. Thomas’ rights, the district will be forced to make systemic change,” Panzer said. “The district has an obligation to provide both students and employees a safe environment free from race discrimination. We would like to see them actually fulfill that obligation.”
The lawsuit filed in Utah district court accuses Thomas’ colleagues of treating her as a subordinate rather than an equal. About a month into her employment, a colleague handed her a pile of garbage and ordered her to clean up the trash during what was supposed to be an opportunity for Thomas to network with other administrators, the complaint states.
Her employment ended June 30, 2023, after administrators decided not to renew her one-year contract, Williams said, declining to explain why. Her photo had not been removed from the district directory as of Thursday.
Thomas said she had scheduled a meeting a couple of months earlier with the district’s human resources director to discuss the discrimination she had experienced, but earlier that day, she said, the assistant superintendent placed her on administrative leave with little explanation and told her the district would be investigating her workplace conduct. Her contract soon expired, and she never learned the result.
“Davis School District administrators, teachers and staff stand firmly against any form of harassment or discrimination that affects a child’s learning experience in our schools,” Williams said, declining to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit. “Our primary duty and responsibility is to create a safe environment for every child, employee and patron.”