News (USA)

School board renews contract of teacher who allegedly used anti-LGBTQ+ slurs in class

Wausau East High School
Wausau East High SchoolPhoto: Screenshot/WAOW

A Wisconsin community is outraged after the local school board renewed the contract of a teacher who allegedly used racist and homophobic language in class.

At a school board meeting in Wausau, Wisconsin, on Monday night, nearly 30 speakers testified for an hour-and-a-half in support of a gay student of Hmong-Lao descent who recently filed an official complaint against Robert Perkins, alleging that the Wausau East High School band instructor directed racial and homophobic slurs at him.

Nevertheless, following the public comment period, the school board, which had previously dismissed the student’s complaint, renewed Perkins’s contract for the following school year, the Wausau Daily Herald reports.

According to the Herald, the student and his parents, Manee and Thavone Vongphakdy, filed an official complaint of harassment and discrimination with the district against Perkins on April 5. Perkins was placed on leave on April 10, but after an investigation, Superintendent Keith Hilts dismissed the complaint, and Perkins returned to work.

“While a preponderance of the evidence shows that Mr. Perkins did not engage in harassing or discriminatory behavior, he did engage in insensitive and unprofessional conduct,” Hilts wrote in a letter in late April, according to The Daily Beast. “Witnesses indicate that he did use language that could be insensitive to students of different protected classes, including race and sex, but that language does not rise to the level of discrimination or harassment.”

On April 27, Asian-American leaders in Wausau, which has a large Hmong-Lao population (an ethnic group in the nation of Laos), released an open letter addressing the Wausau School District’s (WSD) investigation.

“Despite corroborating statements confirming Mr. Perkins’ use of anti-Asian, racist slurs… as well as statements from other witnesses that Mr. Perkins’ conduct caused unease among students from protected classes, the WSD investigator still found no grounds for a determination of harassment,” they wrote. “This decision sends a strong message that using racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs are permissible, so long as they made are in good faith, and that is just unacceptable to us.”

A petition demanding Perkins’s termination has received over 3,000 signatures, according to the Wausau Daily Herald.

“There’s only one victim here, and that’s my son,” Thavone Vongphakdy told board members at Monday night’s meeting. Vongphakdy previously told local ABC affiliate WAOW that he fears for his son’s mental health, and that the student was unable to attend school for weeks, due to Perkins’s alleged harassment.

The student’s aunt, Jennifer Yang, said that her nephew has had to endure “victim blaming” since coming forward with the allegations. “You had an opportunity to make all these wrongs right. But the district decided to be complicit in racism, sexism, and homophobia,” Yang told board members.

Other supporters of the Vongphakdy family came forward with their own allegations of Perkins’s misconduct. In a statement, former student Olivia Torrez wrote that Perkins frequently used racially charged and demeaning nicknames to refer to herself and her brother. Torrez also alleged that after Perkins learned that she was bisexual, he made her watch a YouTube video of a woman dancing, telling her that he found the woman sexually attractive and asking Torrez if she agreed.

“When he found out I was bisexual, he took advantage of me by using me as an opportunity to sexualize me and other women,” she wrote.

Katherine Plier, the queer Chinese American music director of Chicago comedy venue Second City and a 2016 graduate of Wausau East High, drove 300 miles to speak at the meeting. “East helped set up my career in music … as an act of endurance to (Perkins’) bullying, his racism, homophobia, and his lack of musical support and musical competency,” she said.

Wausau East teacher Jody Krieg, accompanied by 15 other staffers, read a statement signed by 65 members of the school’s staff. “We are saddened by what has transpired and do not condone what has led us to this point. It is our hope that the public, especially our beloved and respected Hmong community, along with the board, recognize that this is not indicative of all staff conduct,” Krieg said. “Students from different places and of different races belong and deserve a respectful, caring, and nurturing learning space. We stand united in our advocacy for all students.”

In a statement following the meeting, Thavone Vongphakdy said that even more former Wausau East students have contacted the family with stories of Perkins’s harassment.

“It is clear that our son’s experience was part of a larger pattern with a long history,” he wrote. “We are working to compile these stories and share them with appropriate authorities. We encourage people impacted by Mr. Perkins’ behavior to reach out to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction so that we can work together towards healing and accountability.”

Last week, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which has the power to revoke a teacher’s license, reportedly opened a misconduct investigation into Perkins.

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