‘Where was the transparency?‘ Pleasant Valley parents speak out about lawsuit against district over racist video

Published: Jun. 10, 2022 at 5:34 PM CDT
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PLEASANT VALLEY, Iowa (KWQC) - Two parents of a Pleasant Valley High School filed a lawsuit last winter against the district over the way they handled the aftermath of a racist video that was made and posted to social media by two of the district’s students in 2020.

The video, which was made by two students at the high school, involved the teenage boys pretending to commit a hate crime.

The Tik Tok video depicts one of the boys dressed up in blackface while the other pretends to beat him to the floor with a weapon. While the “beating” continues, the boy in blackface pretends to pick cotton up from the ground and puts it in a satchel.

The video then cuts to a scene where the boy in blackface is shown performing a derogatory sexual act.

It ends with the boy in blackface on his knees, the other boy pretending to shoot him execution-style with a shot gun. The boy not in blackface turns around, smiles, and gives the camera a thumbs-up.

The video is set to a racist and derogatory chant in the background.

In December, Louis and Monalisa Holton-Brown said they received an email from the Pleasant Valley School District regarding the video. The email stated that the school had become aware of the video when it was first posted in 2020, and had addressed it with the students involved.

It stated that the video had been recently re-posted and that the school was working towards a more inclusive environment.

The full email sent to Pleasant Valley parents by the district:

“Last evening around 8:30 pm, we became aware of a racist and abhorrent video being posted on social media. After students shared the video with us, we were able to identify it as a video that first surfaced approximately two years ago. When this indefensible posting originally surfaced, we immediately addressed the situation with the students and their families which included consequences and removal of the posting. This morning, we will be addressing this matter and the harmful impact it has on our students, families and community.

As a district, events like this, whether occurring in school or outside of school, emphasize the work we have to do to create an inclusive environment where all students feel safe and respected no matter the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status.

We will be meeting with our high school Positive Place Student Diversity Group, Unite Club, Spartan Assembly, and our high school staff diversity committee to further our action plan to ensure a safe environment for all students and staff.”

“As soon as it came out they should’ve dealt with it right away,” said Louis Brown, who told TV6 they were unaware of the video’s existence before the email, “when we first saw the video we were completely appalled.”

The Browns’ lawsuit, filed in January 2022, claims seven counts of negligence and emotional distress, explaining that the school’s decision to not inform parents when the video originally appeared on Tik Tok two years ago impacted the Browns’ ability to parent and protect their daughter.

It was filed against the Pleasant Valley Community School District, High School Principal Darren Erickson, and the district’s Superintendent, Bryan Strusz.

When TV6 inquired about why the two teenagers who initially made the video are not mentioned as Plaintiffs, the Browns’ representative Chase Cartee stated, “we were going after the school and their responsibility to our clients’ child, and the children of PV in general, instead of the teens personally.”

“Parents should’ve been notified at that time,” said Monalisa Holton-Brown, “where was the transparency? The parents were not given the right to parent in that situation.”

The petition--or the formal document involved in the original lawsuit--also states that Pleasant Valley High School failed to impose “reasonable consequences” on the two students who were involved in the making of the abhorrent video, which in turn caused their daughter the pain of suffering bullying and harassment.

“The Browns had a conversation with the Superintendent and that was recorded, so they know what was done,” responded Cartee, when asked about how the Browns would know what consequences were given to the students in the video.

Ultimately, the Browns state in the lawsuit that the students should have been suspended or expelled for the video.

“Parents need to be assured when something like this happens,” said Brown, “let us assure you that there isn’t any threat against any students at this school, and that wasn’t done.”

According to the Code of Conduct written in Pleasant Valley’s Student-Parent Handbook, expulsion is a “level four” consequence for misconduct. The level outlines the most severe consequence out of four others.

The school responded in March with a request for the court to dismiss the lawsuit , claiming that school discipline is discretionary.

The school’s main argument being that the students made the video off campus and outside of school hours.

According to Iowa State Law, schools are only mandates to address misconduct if it occurs on campus and during school hours. A judge at the Scott County Courthouse cited this in their May Ruling, agreeing with the school’s claim that they are not responsible for the video since it was outside of school.

The Ruling dismissed all counts stated in the original lawsuit except for one involving negligence, which claimed the two students in the video had bullied and harassed the Browns’ daughter in school making it difficult for her to participate.

“They were on school grounds sharing this video in class,” said Brown about the claim.

When asked about the original lawsuit’s lack in detail over which specific events occurred around the bullying and harassment, Cartee stated, “Iowa is a Notice Pleading state so we don’t have to plead every single fact.”

The definition of a Notice Pleading states that a lawsuit doesn’t have to be specific with details or examples to support its claims.

“The ruling doesn’t make this go away,” said Cartee.

In a response to TV6 about the lawsuit, the Pleasant Valley Community School District said it continues to commit to an environment where all students feel safe.

Their full response:

“We cannot comment on the specifics of the current litigation, however the video that was created was inappropriate and abhorrent, and the district continues to work to create an inclusive environment for all students.

Due to privacy laws, school districts cannot release information regarding discipline in any instance. The information is confidential to protect all students involved.

As a district, events like this, whether occurring in school or outside of school, emphasize the work we continue to have to do to create an inclusive environment where all students feel safe and respected no matter the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, religion, creed, sexual orientation, gender identity, and socioeconomic status.”

TV6 reached out to one of the students involved in the video, explaining that the lawsuit was going to be covered. TV6 will not be naming the student involved due to age factors and privacy concerns.

His response:

“I am not racist and have never been. There hasn’t been a day since I created that horrible video that I haven’t deeply regretted making it. This was me and my friends dumbest and [most] insensitive thing we’ve ever done.”

The Browns have told TV6 that they plan to re-file their lawsuit against the school.

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