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Racial bullying at B-W schools sparks safety concerns for students

Imari Klein and Kendra Ombati pose for a photo in front of Viking Middle School in Woodville. Youssef Rddad / RiverTown Multimedia

When Amiya Murphy moved to Baldwin last year, she was excited to start at a new school.

After moving from Eau Claire, she found the sprawling rural fields pretty in the summertime. But a few months into Murphy's fifth-grade year, she became a bully's target.

As one of a small handful of black students in the Baldwin-Woodville School District, the comments started as remarks about her skin color but escalated as the year went on.

Toward the end of the school year, a classmate shoved a picture of a Confederate flag in her face.

"He said, 'worship my flag, you black,'" Murphy said. "He called me the N-word several times that year."

Cases like hers are sparking concern among some parents and students in the primarily-white school district, located between the Twin Cities and Eau Claire. They say some students have been the victims of repeated racial bullying at school, but they feel their pleas to district officials have gone unaddressed.

B-W school officials insist all complaints related to bullying or racial slurs are investigated.

"I can guarantee it's not something we've swept under the rug," said Viking Middle School Principal Scott Benoy. "It's discouraging to think there's a sentiment that I'm ignoring these things."

State laws require Wisconsin schools to create procedures for handling bullying, which includes confidentiality and establishing disciplinary action for any retaliation.

This school year, the middle school logged two instances where a student was suspended from school after making racially-charged comments toward other students.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the school district recorded 10 discrimination complaints during the 2015-2016 school year. That same year, neighboring New Richmond schools logged five complaints despite having roughly twice as many students than Baldwin-Woodville schools.

Those complaints, however, cover a wide range of discriminatory charges involving bias or harassment related to race, age and disability, among others considerations.

Substantiated complaints involving racial harassment and bullying often results in a suspension, Benoy said. Severe cases, like when a student is threatened or is repeatedly harassed, are reported to law enforcement.

"I can't change a family's attitude. I can't change a particular child's attitude," Benoy said. "But I can make the behavior stop or at least attempt to make the behavior stop."

Some students at Viking Middle School said they've given up reporting every instance because the frequency of harassment has become so numerous.

Kendra Ombati and Imari Klein, both eighth-grade students at Viking Middle School, said they've regularly experienced racist taunts and threats from about a dozen different classmates.

Ombati, who's been in the school district since Kindergarten, said the bullying and racial slurs began when she started fifth grade. Since then, she said she's been the target of racial slurs at least every month.

Last fall, Ombati said classmates on the bus told her they planned to join the Ku Klux Klan and that she "would be next." Other times, she's been brought to tears after repeatedly being called the N-word.

"It's stressful knowing I'll have to deal with this my whole life," Ombati, 13, said. "I don't know why I'm being treated differently."

She said she found it difficult to focus on her studies and has started to fall behind in some of her classes.

Fearful for her daughter's safety, Beth Ombati said she spoke with school officials at the beginning of the school year but doesn't feel they've taken strong enough action.

Chief among her concerns are whether staff and faculty receive any training on bullying when it relates to race.

"It's a serious issue," Beth Ombati said. "There are kids committing suicide over being bullied. It doesn't seem like they know what to do."

According to the most recent demographic information by the DPI, Viking Middle School is 94 percent white, with 22 students of color making up the student body of 360.

Those figures roughly mirror the sister communities of Baldwin and Woodville, according to the U.S. Census.

In 2013, school officials suspended a high school student who put a miniature noose on a black student's desk while wearing a white cone on his head.

Superintendent Eric Russell, who was principal of the school then, said police also issued a citation to the student.

He added that it's difficult for schools to address bullying and harassment when it goes unreported, especially for repeat offenders.

"We don't want to be naive about it either," Russell said. "If there's something going on, we want to know about it."