Williamsburg County Schools Settle With Students Over Same-Race Discrimination

Fred Horlbeck, Dolan Media, December 28, 2009

Two Williamsburg County students and members of their family have reached a $150,000 settlement in what may be the first Title VI lawsuit based on claims of intra-racial discrimination in South Carolina public schools.

Lawrence “Larry” Kobrovsky, a Charleston attorney who focuses his practice on constitutional law and school issues, said the parties settled after a female student’s claims of sexual and racial harassment at a Salters school went to trial in U.S. District Court in Florence.

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Both students were members of an African-American family that shared a home in rural Williamsburg County. Both attended public schools at the time of the alleged harassment.

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The cases were Gasque, et al. v. Williamsburg County School District et al., Civil Action No. 4:07-CV-01757-RBH; and Gasque v. Williamsburg County School District, et al., Civil Action No. 4:07-CV-1765-RBH.

“What made this unique is that this, as far as I know, is the only Title VI case ever brought in federal court when it’s an intra-racial hostile environment,” Kobrovsky said.

Title VI prohibits allowing a racially hostile educational environment in schools and programs receiving federal financial assistance and provides for a private cause of action for violations.

The younger student {snip} claimed she suffered emotional trauma because she was subjected to racial and sexual slurs at an elementary school in Salters during September and November 2006. She had to receive home instruction for the rest of the school year, according to an amended complaint.

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‘Acting white’

Proving intra-racial discrimination was a matter of portraying the environment cultural and racial at the students’ respective schools, Kobrovsky said.

Both students were African-American, and so was most of the elementary school’s student body, according to Kobrovsky. Most students were also black at the high school that her uncle attended.

The problem was the culture of rural Williamsburg County, he said.

“You have a culture where to act like you want to do well in school is considered acting white. And that is part of why we’re saying that it was racial, even though the students were all of the same race because they weren’t acting how the others thought they should be acting as members of that race,” Kobrovsky said.

The uncle testified that racial separation in the county generally meant white students attended private schools while black students attended public schools.

At the public schools, he said, fitting in meant not being what his family was: “churchy,” “upright” and wanting education, as another witness put it, according to a trial transcript.

“You see, it’s a crime to act white, or it’s a crime to be white,” the uncle testified.

Harassment, he testified, made him feel that “we are just dumb, we’re just not people, we’re undergraded, we’re degraded, and we’re not even supposed to be in this world.”

That testimony was the key to the settlement, Kobrovsky said.

“I think the most compelling part was his, and that’s, frankly, why it’s settled after he testified,” Kobrovsky said.

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