Children say students called them ‘cotton picker,’ ‘slave.’ Parents take legal action

Before bringing a lawsuit against the Upland Unified School District for violating their civil rights and the state's education code, the families must first file a legal claim and allow 45 days for a response.

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Four California families allege white elementary students subjected their children to racist bullying throughout Black History Month, giving them notes that referred to the recipients as a “cotton picker” and “slave.”

The Cochran Firm represents the families who have initiated legal action against the school district for what they say are the most recent instances of unchecked racism and discrimination.

The Los Angeles-based Cochran Firm, with the children and parents present, held a press conference Monday. Their lawyer shared the filing of four damage claims, seeking a minimum of $10,000 for each family, against the Upland Unified School District. The families must first seek damages before they can file a lawsuit, according to state law.

The school district has 45 days to respond, admitting or disputing responsibility, which opens the door for the Cochran Firm to file a lawsuit for violating the children’s civil rights and the state’s education code.

It’s a move that comes in response to routine bullying and racial harassment for a number of years against the students who are in third through seventh grades at Pepper Tree Elementary School in Upland, California. The recent events this month are just the latest in a long line of offenses, their lawyer alleged.

California school district racism
Parents of students attending Pepper Tree Elementary School in Upland, California, are taking legal action against the district, claiming they did nothing to protect their children from racism. (Photo Courtesy: The Cochran Law Firm)

“Children are still being subjected to some of the most heinous racial attacks that one could ever think of,” attorney James Bryant said during the press conference, calling the recent events “atrocious.”

Bryant claimed that the Upland School District and Pepper Tree will “have to face the consequences of their failure to provide a safe space” for every child in light of the “pain they have endured.”

Chloe Jenkins is among the victims of the alleged racist acts. On Feb. 1, a student allegedly informed her they’d drawn a handmade card for her.

“And the next day she gave me the card, and it said, ‘To my favorite cotton picker’,” Chloe recalled during the press conference. “And that made me feel like — I didn’t know that they actually thought of me that way. So it made me feel less than a person.”

A white student allegedly told London Douglas, the only Black girl in her class, that she would get a drawing featuring a Black person hanging from a tree and the caption, “You’re my favorite slave.”

During the press conference, Bryant referenced Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor’s suicide death in November 2021. The 10-year-old Black girl with autism attended Foxboro Elementary in Farmington, Utah, where bullies allegedly victimized her because of her race and disability.

Despite Izzy’s parents complaining daily about the racial harassment and mistreatment she faced, Bryant said school officials failed to take action. He promised himself if similar alleged bullying happened, particularly in California, he would hold the school district accountable. And then it did.

The Gabremariam, Newman and Douglas families are the other families that have pursued legal action with the Jenkinses. Retired NFL player Rome Douglas and collegiate basketball coach Maylana Martin are parents to London and her twin brother, Rome. He says every day at the school is a struggle.

“The N-word, monkey, animals, creatures, slaves, that is what these children — third, fourth, fifth, sixth graders — have been subjected to for the past seven years,” Bryant said. “And these parents did everything they could. They put the district on notice. They put the schools on notice, and still, nothing happened.”

Bryant noted that Black History Month exists to prevent history from repeating itself. Unfortunately, he said, this problem occurs too frequently in modern society.

“Children are not born to hate. It is taught in the home,” Bryant said during the press conference. “But when administrators and teachers — their own children are perpetuating this — how can you change a broken system? If Upland School District didn’t think it was going to be a problem then, it is going to be a massive problem now.”

While numerous attempts to contact a school official went unanswered, an automated message thanks callers and refers them to the Upland School District website, claiming the school district and community are treating the issue “very seriously.”

The statement on the district’s website, which cites the 2018 adoption of Board Policy 0415, claims the Upland School District is committed to ensuring students receive the resources needed to be successful.

“The Governing board believes the diversity in the community is integral to the district’s vision and goals and is: committed to equity in opportunities and resulting outcomes to address the needs of the most marginalized learners,” the statement reads, in part, “identifying practices, policies, and institutional barriers to eradicate bias and eliminate disparities, making decisions with an awareness of impediments to learning in mind; developing and implementing policies and strategies to promote equity.”

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