Suits allege bullying, racism at Baptist Hill

A former teacher and a parent of a student at Baptist Hill Middle-High School have filed separate lawsuits against the Charleston County School District and school administrators, claiming school officials did nothing to stop black students from calling them racial slurs and other taunts.

A student and a former teacher have filed separate federal lawsuits against the Charleston County School District, claiming the principal at a Hollywood school failed to discipline black students who called them racial slurs for being white and Hispanic.

Carlos J. Fernandez filed a lawsuit March 24 against Baptist Hill Middle-High School Principal Kala Goodwine and the school district.

Fernandez, who taught for 17 years in Charleston County public schools, is seeking unspecified compensatory damages against the district and Goodwine due to racial discrimination, retaliation and civil rights violations. He also is seeking punitive damages against Goodwine.

The lawsuit is one of two filed in the last month against Goodwine and the district. Richard J. Smith filed a federal lawsuit March 13 on behalf of his daughter alleging the Baptist Hill administrators also failed to stop similar bullying of his daughter. According to that lawsuit, Smith’s daughter, who is under age 14, transferred to homebound instruction in November after students at the predominantly black school bullied her so badly for being white and a girl that a doctor issued a letter saying there was a “concern for harm” if she remained at the school.

In addition to the district and Goodwine, Smith’s lawsuit names former Superintendent Nancy McGinley, Deputy Superintendent of Academics Lisa Herring and associate superintendents Lou Martin and James Winbush as defendants. That lawsuit is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages from the defendants due to civil rights violations including racial discrimination and allowing a racially hostile education environment.

Attorney Larry Kobrovsky, a former member of the Charleston County School Board, is representing Fernandez and Smith in the two lawsuits.

Kobrovsky, who regularly represents teachers and students in similar lawsuits against the school district, won a jury verdict of $307,000 in 2006 in a lawsuit for former teacher and school board member Elizabeth Kandrac, who claimed she was the victim of racial discrimination and harassment by students at Brentwood Middle School in North Charleston.

The school district has been challenged in recent years with stemming the tide of a growing number of racial incidents involving both black and white students.

This school year, Academic Magnet High School’s predominantly white football team came under fire for a victory celebration involving the smashing of watermelons that some said perpetuated stereotypes demeaning to African Americans. And a student at the Charleston County School of the Arts was suspended in February after using a racial slur to describe black students in a social media post.

Problems of black students bullying white students in predominantly black schools also continue to persist. Kobrovsky is representing another former Baptist Hill teacher and another student in similar lawsuits filed last year that claim students targeted them with racial slurs and expletives for being white. Those lawsuits are still pending.

The district had tapped an Atlanta-based diversity consultant to address the ongoing problem but the school board opted not to extend his contract earlier this year. The district has since created a new internal post for an executive director of diversity and inclusion and is actively working to fill that position.

Kobrovsky thinks the district needs to address racial issues equally, regardless of whether the victim is white or black.

“As an American citizen, you should be welcome at any public school,” Kobrovsky said. “You should be equal there and should be treated just as important as anyone else.”

The two latest lawsuits lay out a pattern of “racially hostile” behavior against white students and teachers at Baptist Hill where, according to Fernandez’s suit, there has been an “escalation” of racial harassment by students that has gone undisciplined.

Fernandez’s suit stems from ongoing issues at Baptist Hill between 2012 and 2014 where he was a 12th-grade economics and government teacher. According to the suit, the district and Goodwine failed to discipline students who taunted Fernandez, who is of Cuban descent, with phrases using expletives describing him as being white or Mexican. Baptist Hill has around 480 students, of whom 84 percent are black.

The lawsuit claims students knew they could “get away with this behavior because they saw and witnessed no adequate tangible action” being taken by the principal.

After Fernandez complained about the students’ behavior, the lawsuit claims he was “demoted” to teaching a noncore subject and monitoring a computer lab. Fernandez retired from the school district in July 2014.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reviewed a complaint regarding Fernandez’s problems at the school and issued a “right-to-sue” notice in December.

Smith’s daughter, according to his suit, was subjected to racial and sexual slurs between August and October of last year. The middle-schooler, the lawsuit claims, was “treated in a humiliating, threatening and degrading ... hostile manner by other students” that made her feel “unsafe, unwelcome, scared and humiliated.” The student stopped attending the school in October after it became “unbearable and unsafe” for her to attend, the lawsuit said. The school in November approved the girl for homebound instruction where a teacher provides assignments and tests at a student’s home.

Both lawsuits claim the type of behavior experienced by Fernandez and Smith’s daughter is “pervasive” at Baptist Hill, but that school administrators and the district have failed to take adequate measures to discipline students.

John Emerson, the school district’s attorney, declined to comment regarding the lawsuits involving Fernandez and Smith. The district previously declined to comment about the allegations involving Baptist Hill made in the other two suits.

A successful outcome of these lawsuits, Kobrovsky said, would be that everyone feels welcome at Baptist Hill.

“One of the missions of the school should be to instill respect for the teacher, whatever the background of the teacher is,” Kobrovsky said.

“No child should feel targeted, no child should feel victimized because of what they look like,” he said.

Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or on Twitter at @PCAmandaKerr.