WATERTOWN — The “outrageous” re-enactment of a slave auction at a city elementary school, which garnered nationally attention last year, has gone a step further: a lawsuit has been filed in federal court seeking damages and an apology from the Watertown City School District.
Nicole Dayes, the mother of a then-10-year-old Black child identified as Z.D. in court documents, filed suit in U.S. District Court’s Northern District of New York on Aug. 20 against the city school district, as well as former fourth-grade teacher Patricia A. Bailey for alleged civil rights violations and negligence.
“It was outrageous then and it continues to be outrageous (now),” Ms. Dayes’ attorney, Timothy J. Fennell, Oswego, said Friday of the mock auction incident.
The school district’s attorney, Frank W. Miller, filed an answer Thursday denying all claims made in the complaint. Mr. Miller further maintains if any liability were found in the case, the fault would be on Ms. Bailey, not the district. He’s filed cross-claims against Ms. Bailey on the district’s behalf seeking to make Ms. Bailey responsible for any monetary judgment that may be awarded, or for at least a proportionate share of any judgment.
“The answer, I think, speaks for itself,” Mr. Miller said Friday. “The school district contends it did nothing wrong and an employee acted outside of her scope of employee.”
On May 28, 2019, Ms. Bailey conducted a mock slave auction in her fourth-grade classroom at North Elementary School. It’s alleged Ms. Bailey singled out Z.D. and another Black student in the class to serve as “slaves” for a mock auction. The two Black students were instructed to stand at the front of the classroom while their classmates bid on them.
According to the complaint, Ms. Bailey said if it were a real auction, the students would be shackled, naked and their legs would be broken if they tried to escape.
Once the students were “purchased,” it’s alleged Ms. Bailey said the students would have to take the last name of their new “owner,” as well as refer to their “owner” as “master.” Once the auction concluded, Ms. Bailey asked Z.D. how he felt. He said he no longer wanted to be Black, and he felt being Black was a “disgrace,” the complaint states.
As a result of the auction, Ms. Dayes alleges her son endured psychological injuries, pain, suffering, mental anguish and extreme emotional distress. Z.D. also suffered academically with failing grades during the 2019-20 school year.
The school district, according to the complaint, was “grossly negligent” in its supervision of Ms. Bailey and provided “no or inadequate training” to the former teacher regarding issues of racial discrimination, racial harassment or racially hostile education environments. It’s further alleged that Ms. Bailey’s means of teaching the topic of slavery — which is required by the state Board of Regents — was “clearly and extremely disproportionate” to educational purposes and reflects “racial malice, callousness, and deliberate indifference” to Z.D.’s rights.
According to the complaint, the district also failed to adequately address Ms. Bailey’s conduct as the district never issued a formal statement regarding the incident and no formal disciplinary action was taken against the former teacher. A substitute teacher took over Ms. Bailey’s class for the remainder of the 2018-19 school year and, according to the complaint, she was “allowed” to retire, although she submitted her intent to retire a month prior to the incident.
The suit claims Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was violated because of the incident. Title VI of the act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal financial assistance. The suit also claims Z.D.’s rights to substantive due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment were breached, as well as negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress under state law.
The suit’s filing came about a week after the state attorney general’s office concluded an investigation and found the incident “had a profoundly negative effect on all students present,” but stopped short of finding the school district in violation of any state or federal civil rights laws. The investigation did require the district to “actively pursue staff diversification” through its hiring practices and to appoint a diversity office. The district has been working with a diversity adviser, Gwendolyn Webber-McLeod, president and CEO of Gwen Inc., who Board of Education members heard from during the board’s Sept. 15 meeting.
“Reading the attorney general’s consent decree, it’s still something that we feel nowhere in there was there an acceptance of responsibility and apologies,” Mr. Fennell said.
Ms. Dayes is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, litigation costs, attorneys’ fees and any other relief the court deems appropriate. Mr. Fennell said they’re also seeking a formal apology from the district as an apology was never issued on the matter.
On Friday, Ms. Bailey filed a letter with the court indicating the school district is refusing to provide her with an attorney, but she’s hopeful the New York State United Teachers union will provide her with proper counsel. She’s also contacted a private firm as it’s unclear whether or not the union will represent her. Since counsel through a private firm has not been obtained, Ms. Bailey requested an additional 30 days to respond to Ms. Dayes’ complaint and to find counsel.
Ms. Bailey could not be reached for comment Friday.
The complaint does not specify an amount being sought in damages.