'Wangsta' case can be teachable moment

A former student at Red Wing High School has filed a lawsuit against the school district, its high school principal and its new superintendent, claiming that school officials did not act aggressively to protect her civil rights.

No one is denying that on at least two occasions, some students at the school conducted themselves in a less-than-desirable manner. During homecoming week in 2008 and 2009, they dressed up in what is known as "wangsta" or "wigger" attire — which can be seen as mocking African-American culture. These were not school-sanctioned events, but the incidents were severe enough to warrant the involvement of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, which will monitor the district until 2012.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit, an African-American female, claims that she suffered emotional distress, depression, sleep loss, shame and other problems as a result of what happened Red Wing High School.

If this case goes to trial, it will bear watching. We won't speculate about the validity the student's claims or the school district's denials, but proving "emotional distress" and "anxiety" in court can be a tall order, especially when one is seeking monetary damages in excess of $75,000.

But the first paragraph of the lawsuit's introduction is compelling. It states:


"Teenagers do not always understand the profound impact that bigotry and bullying has on its victims. But adults should. Especially when the adults are administrators and teachers within public schools wherein they are acting as parens patriae" (which refers to the state's legal role as the guardian of children who cannot take care of themselves).

True enough — and we'll go one step further: Sometimes teenagers are fully aware of the the "profound impact" that their words and actions will have, yet they go ahead and deliver the cruel punchline, spread the vicious rumor or put the humiliating photograph online for all the world to see.

School administrators and teachers are indeed responsible for doing everything they can to prevent bullying and bigotry from affecting the education of even one student, but it's a daunting task. Sometimes the cruelty is too subtle to detect, or it requires a certain "street savvy" that anyone above the age of 30 is unlikely to possess. That means that all too often, damage is done before anyone in a position of authority recognizes what's going on.

That may or may not have been the case at Red Wing High School, and a trial could help answer that question. We certainly can't conceive of any public school district in Minnesota knowingly and repeatedly turning a blind eye to something as obviously offensive as "Wigger Day."

Regardless of how the lawsuit turns out, it's a safe bet that teachers, administrators, police liaison officers and students in school districts across the state will talk about what happened in Red Wing, and how to prevent it from happening in their schools. Some districts might take a proactive approach by tightening their dress codes or adopting some type of uniform.

Ultimately, we can only hope that some good might come from what happened in Red Wing.

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