The Boulder Valley School District has reached a tentative settlement agreement with a family who sued the district for racial discrimination earlier this year, according to recent court records. The family filed the complaint in federal court after a principal at Whittier International Elementary School determined their child, a white fourth-grade student, made discriminatory comments to another student.
In their lawsuit, filed on March 3, the family alleged the district “selectively enforced disciplinary processes” on the basis of their child’s race, creating a “hostile school environment in the name of ‘anti-racism,’” according to court records. The school district’s lawyers denied the allegations, arguing that “taking steps to ensure that all BVSD students are treated fairly is not racism.”
The details of the settlement agreement have not been made public. Lawyers for the school district and the family, as well as spokespeople for the district, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Boulder Reporting Lab. The family referred inquiries to their lawyer.
In filing the lawsuit, the family sought to expunge their child’s disciplinary record and receive financial damages and attorneys’ fees, among other requests, according to court records. The final settlement is likely to require approval from the Boulder Valley Board of Education.
The lawsuit is a flashpoint in the district’s effort to reform its disciplinary policies and procedures, which historically have disadvantaged Black and Latino students. Black and Latino students in Boulder’s public schools are punished at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers. Such punishment — the removal from a classroom, suspension, or referral to police — can exacerbate racial gaps in educational achievement, studies show.
Families of Latino students, some of whom do not speak English as their primary language, often do not contest disciplinary measures taken against their children. That a family would take the district to federal court is a dramatic escalation of a dispute that started among students — and one that could put the school and its teachers on high alert at an already stressful time.
“Teachers are scared to do their job,” Sabrina Clauson, a parent of a Whittier Elementary student, told Boulder Reporting Lab in a recent interview. “They are scared to get shot. They went through the pandemic. Now they are scared to get sued.”
‘This all feels like a bad dream’
In January 2023, during a lunch recess, a white student told two Black students to “be his servants and body guards,” according to court records. The mother of one of the Black students, Jamillah Richmond, who worked as a substitute teacher and is involved in parent groups advising the district, filed a complaint.
The principal, Sarah Oswick, investigated the complaint and determined that while the white student “had not intended to hurt others … the allegation of harassment or bullying on the basis of race” was founded. (Oswick resigned in January.)
After the incident involving her daughter, Richmond wrote a post on Facebook about it. “I think everyone needs to know what it’s like to be a Black child in this school system surrounded by children who don’t have sense or good parents,” it states. (The post, which has since been edited, does not name the other student or his family.)
In light of this post, Jennifer Leahy, the mother of the white student, wrote in an email to the school principal stating the post was “out of context and unbalanced” and was “inciting violence against” her child. She said it was “cyber bullying.” (A teacher, Andee Grandits, later filed a Safe2Tell report about Richmond’s post.)
“This all feels like a bad dream. We chose Whittier for its diversity. We ARE allies,” Leahy wrote. “[Richmond] is so angry. With us. With the system. … Unfortunately any response on our part will look like retaliation at this point.”
The family then hired a civil rights lawyer, Kellie Miller, who works for a firm with offices in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Miller requested the district investigate a separate incident in which Richmond’s daughter put Leahy’s son into a “chokehold.”
Both bullying allegations against Richmond and her daughter were later investigated by district officials and determined to be unfounded, according to court records.
In light of those findings, as well as other incidents, the family filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court. It alleged the district violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in part because their child was “subjected to a different discipline process and procedure on account of his race,” among other allegations.
The lawyers representing the family argued that the white student — who has since attended private school for safety reasons, according to court records — has been “constructively expelled without due process.” At the time of the lawsuit, the lawyers wrote, the student’s school record and disciplinary file “left his educational future in a state of uncertainty” and that he was “academically behind and emotionally impaired from missing most of his spring semester.”
The district disputes many of the underlying assertions in the complaint. It has also told the family their child is welcome to return to Whittier or another public school.
“They have distorted the facts, unfairly maligned a school principal, and dragged a mother and her child through the mud to obtain relief they do not need or deserve,” the district’s lawyers wrote in a March 27 response to the lawsuit.
‘I’m not in the position to be racist’
The family has requested to remain anonymous through the court proceedings. But court filings and public records include personally identifiable information. The initial lawsuit referenced Richmond by name, but not as a defendant.
Richmond serves on the District Accountability Committee and co-founded the Parents of Color Council, both of which advise the district. She has been outspoken in calling on the district to acknowledge the role of racism in disparities in student discipline.
Citing her work with BVSD, the family’s lawyers alleged Richmond has been able to use her “position of authority” in the district “to shield her daughter from discipline.”
Richmond, however, views the situation differently. “As a single, low-income mother, I’m not in the position to be racist, or to enforce power,” she told Boulder Reporting Lab. Instead, she said, the lawsuit itself is an “example of what structural racism looks like.”
“How many Black children do you see going to federal court claiming racism? How many of us have the economic means to do that?” Richmond said.
Richmond, who worked as a paraeducator in the Whittier library and taught as a substitute teacher, said she is not currently working. Instead, she said she has been home with her daughter, who finished the school year by taking classes from home. Her daughter does not want to go back to school, in part because she doesn’t feel safe around the teachers, Richmond said. Grandits, one of her teachers, filed an affidavit in the lawsuit alleging that her daughter “struggles with impulse control” and frequently hits other students.
It’s unclear what role the Board of Education will have in approving any settlement agreement between the school district and the Leahy family. Earlier this week, Richmond emailed school board members to share her thoughts on a potential settlement. If the district agrees to expunge the white student’s disciplinary record, then it should do the same for her daughter, too, she said.
“The only reason the white parents’ request is being considered is they had the money to sue the school district,” Richmond wrote to the board members. “Like a lot of Black and Brown parents, I don’t have that kind of money, but I deserve the same for my daughter if their kid’s discipline file will be cleaned up. To honor the District’s commitment to equity, both students’ discipline files should be similarly amended.”