Bloomfield Hills High student sues school, district, cites racial discrimination

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

An African American student at Bloomfield Hills High School has filed a $150 million class-action federal lawsuit, alleging racial discrimination against her and other minority classmates.

The suit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court comes after school and officials at the majority-White school district faced criticism recently for their response to racist graffiti and social media messages, which prompted a student walkout and a community forum.

Lawyers for the unidentified 15-year-old who brought the suit against Bloomfield Hills Schools, Superintendent Patrick Watson and her high school principal, Charlie Hollerith, say it indicates an ongoing problem.

Bloomfield Hills High School students walk out and protest in front of the high school on Nov. 12 over the administration's response to racist graffiti in the building and comments on social media.

“As students of color, Plaintiffs and their parents have experienced racist, unfair, hurtful and at times dangerous interactions at BHHS at the hands of both White staff and students,” they wrote in the filing. “Despite being notified of race discrimination and related injustices by students and parents, Defendant has failed and continues to fail to take steps reasonably calculated to stop the discrimination and ensure Plaintiff’s safety.”

According to the suit, the student started attending the high school last year.

She said in her lawsuit that she complained to a White counselor about a red-lipped Black doll hanging from a noose that recently had appeared over a second-floor banister and was told it had been part of a science project.

The teen claimed she reported a White classmate she said used a racial slur but a teacher responded by saying it was “only dark humor” and meted out no punishment.

Her lawyers said similar complaints to staff about other students using the n-word have been ignored.

Hollerith did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.

"... It’s clear we must improve relations between students and administrators, have clearer communications, better transparency and a revision of current policies," principal Charlie Hollerith told the forum audience on Tuesday.

Last week, the teen entered a restroom and found a scrawled message saying “Kill all (n-word)," according to the court filing. Another racially charged message was reportedly found this week on a toilet paper roll.

Meanwhile, social media posts circulated among students are “replete with expressions of racial hatred of Whites toward African Americans with consistent expressions of threats and suggestions to carry out acts of physical violence against African American students and parents,” the lawsuit said.

The suit accuses district officials of ignoring parents’ concerns about addressing such issue. “Defendants’ lack of meaningful action to end racial bullying is consistent with the culture of racial hostility that BHSD has allowed to permeate their schools and other common areas under their control, such as school buses,” the filing claimed.

Watson did not respond to a request for comment Thursday night.

In a statement late Friday, district representatives said: "We cannot comment on the specifics of pending litigation. Most importantly, irrespective of any legal filings, the topic of equity and inclusion will continue to be a top priority for Bloomfield Hills Schools, as it has for the past several years. The district will emerge stronger and better as a result of these conversations, undeterred from its commitment to all students and facilitate a school environment of safety and support for every student.

The suit alleges violations of the 14th Amendment, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. 

It calls for changes such as a thorough probe of threats, better training for staff and hiring of more Black employees within two years.

Meanwhile, Bloomfield Township police have been investigating the graffiti and social media posts as well as boosting patrols.

During the community forum Tuesday that drew hundreds to the high school, Watson and Hollerith repeatedly apologized and allowed dozens of students and parents to voice their concerns and offer recommendations.

The superintendent and principal said Tuesday that hate speech would not be tolerated and said school officials immediately reported the racist messages to police.

Superintendent Pat Watson talks during the Community Collaboration Event at Bloomfield Hills High School in Bloomfield Township on Tuesday.

"I am encouraged by the work the students and staff are doing together, but it’s clear we must improve relations between students and administrators, have clearer communications, better transparency and a revision of current policies," Hollerith told an audience of hundreds.

In an emailed message to the community Wednesday night, Watson said the district was working with student groups and “will continue to formulate a plan of action with district leadership in the coming weeks.”

“I am deeply sorry for the harm … caused to our community,” he wrote.