Chief U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers previously ruled that “undisputed” evidence on 10 documented attacks of the two black students exists indicating district administrators, including Baker Principal Mike Martello and Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, were aware.
By Heather Osbourne | 315-4440 | @heatheronwfdn | email@example.com
NICEVILLE — The Okaloosa County School Board voted Friday to avoid court and settle in the case involving two Baker School students who allegedly received pervasive racial harassment.
The School Board voted 5-to-1 during a special session to approve the undisclosed settlement amount, which, according to a board member Friday, will be finalized and available as a public record within 45 days.
The School Board, Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, School Board Attorney Jeff McInnis and another attorney on the case met privately for 40 minutes to discuss the settlement before the public vote.
School Board member Rodney Walker, the sole no-vote Friday, said the district’s previous insurance carriers are the ones who recommended the settlement. Walker said he too could not disclose the settlement amount until the finalization.
Tyronne and Lakish Adams, the parents of the two black youths, filed the case against the Okaloosa County School District and Jackson in February 2016.
This past September, a federal judge ruled the case alleging a “racially hostile school environment” at Baker should be heard in court.
In issuing her ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge M. Casey Rodgers in Pensacola delivered a scathing rebuke of the school’s and the Okaloosa County School District’s efforts to protect the boys, identified in court documents as eighth-grader T.A. and 10th-grader T.A. Jr., from the racial harassment.
“The district has offered no evidence to rebut T.A. Jr.’s testimony that there was nobody to help him get through this situation, or both boys’ testimonies that they feared for their safety as a result of the harassment,” Rodgers wrote. “There is no evidence in the record that the district provided any accommodation for the boys.”
Rodgers ruled a case could be made “as to whether a racially hostile environment existed at Baker” during the time T.A. and T.A. Jr. attended and whether the district’s response “was reasonably calculated to end the racial harassment.”
McInnis cautioned in a past interview with the Daily News against reading too much into Rodgers’ findings. Her ruling was made on a motion for summary judgment filed by the district, he said, and in cases such as those the judge is bound to rule “in the light most favorable to the unmoving party,” which in this case would be the Adamses.
“We do not believe the district or the school acted deliberately and indifferently as to the students’ concerns,” McInnis said. “In fact, the district and the school spent a great deal of time initiating steps to address the issues that were arising at the school with these two students. Ultimately it will be up to a judge or jury to decide if those actions were adequate to address those issues.”
A judge nor a jury will hear the case, however, if the Adamses and a judge give their final approval of the settlement by April 30.
The Adamses, a military family, moved from Virginia to Florida and the boys attended Baker School from “at least September 2014 through July 2015,” court records show. Lakisha was a Senior Master Sgt. at Eglin Air Force Base, while Tyronne was an HVAC mechanic with the Army 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne) at the base.
“In the first two months of the 2014-15 school year at Baker School, T.A. Jr. was called the ‘N’ word, was told he would hang from a tree, was shown a KKK holding a noose and was told ‘this will happen to you’ by ‘C.R.’ a white student … and grabbed by the face by an unknown student and asked why did he report a (football) player for making racial slurs,” the initial complaint, filed by attorney Fred Flowers on behalf of the Adamses, states.
Rodgers called the initial (C.R.) attack the most “egregious” of 10 documented for which “undisputed” evidence exists indicating district administrators, including Baker Principal Mike Martello and Jackson, were aware.
She notes “the record in this case shows that T.A. and T.A. Jr. were called ‘n—–’ at the very least eight times, once by a teacher, and threatened with a noose at least twice,” during their year at Baker.
″(The Adamses) argue that T.A. and T.A. Jr. were subjected to a racially hostile school environment that deprived them of access to educational benefits and opportunities. The district argues in response that the reported incidents were sporadic and episodic, and because there were no repeat offenders and no evidence of a conspiracy among the students, T.A. and T.A. Jr. ‘were not repeatedly the victims of student-on-student or teacher-on-student racial harassment,’ ” Rodgers wrote. “The Court disagrees.”
“A jury reasonably could find that the racially offensive remarks and actions towards T.A. and T.A. Jr. — none of which (according to the record) were first instigated by either of the boys — were sufficiently regular and continuous to constitute ‘severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive’ harassment,” Rodgers wrote.
Citing testimony from both boys in which they claimed to have missed class time either due to skipping class for fear of harassment or when being disciplined for retaliating after harassment, Rodgers said a jury could reasonably find “harassment at Baker … denied (students) access to educational opportunity.”
She also noted the Adamses eventually turned to home schooling and later moved back to Virginia.
Although McInnis argued that the school district had striven during the time T.A. and T.A. Jr. were attending Baker School to create policies to streamline the reporting process for harassment and conducted a school assembly to address issues surrounding the topic, Rodgers said a jury could question whether enough was done.