Michelle Obama’s brother and his wife, Craig and Kelly Robinson, have filed a lawsuit alleging racial bias at University School of Milwaukee, the private school their children attended.
Breaking the news on Good Morning America Tuesday, the Robinsons said their two sons were kicked out of the school last year after the parents raised concerns about bias in the curriculum and mistreatment of students of color.
“It’s been heartbreaking to watch them manage this,” Kelly Robinson said of her sons in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network.
USM Head of School Steve Hancock defended the school in a letter to families Tuesday, though a spokesperson from the school did not answer questions from the Journal Sentinel. In the letter, Hancock said the students’ rejection was not because the parents raised concerns, but because the parents violated school policies in the way they communicated.
The Robinsons said they are seeking financial compensation from the school, which charges about $30,000 a year for tuition. The Robinsons pledged to give any monetary award to initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion in schools.
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The family moved to the Milwaukee area in 2016 when Craig was hired to work for the Milwaukee Bucks. They said they chose to enroll their children in junior kindergarten and first grade at USM because it was ranked as the best school in the region and marketed itself as valuing diversity.
The Robinsons said they started noticing problems in the curriculum during the pandemic, when they were helping their kids with virtual schooling.
“That allowed us to look into the classroom and what we saw was a repeated use of racial and ethnic stereotypes in actual school assignments,” Craig Robinson said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel.
In November 2020, they said, they brought their concerns to USM staff, noting worksheets and projects that were offensive to people of color, people with disabilities, Indigenous people and other under-represented students.
At first, the Robinsons said school administrators were interested in working with them to improve the curriculum. They had a series of calls discussing ideas, and Kelly said at one point, Hancock told her she should be on the payroll for all the work she put in.
In January and March of 2021, Kelly said, she submitted two bias reports through the school’s reporting system regarding classwork that had “socioeconomic insensitivities.” At that point, Kelly said Hancock disagreed and the dynamic changed.
The Robinsons declined to share the specific problems with the materials, saying the main problem was how the school responded to their concerns and shut out their children.
In an April email to Kelly, included in the lawsuit, Hancock told her she had failed to follow the school’s expectations for parents, engaging in “disrespectful and deflating” communications. In the same email, Hancock requested she find another school for one of her sons.
In June, Hancock said the school would not allow either of the Robinson children to return for the 2021-22 school year, according to another email included with the suit. He again blamed Kelly’s communications for the school’s decision, calling the children “students who embody USM’s portrait of a graduate.”
As other families learned what happened, the Robinsons said they heard a flood of stories of other troublesome experiences, including a lack of repercussions for racial epithets and other discrimination against students of color. Some of those stories have been shared on the Instagram account, “Black at USM.”
Another parent, Cynthia McPhedran, said she had been just as persistent as the Robinsons about issues their family had with bias in classrooms, as well as issues for students who were doing virtual learning while others were in person.
When McPhedran heard about the Robinsons being forced out, she decided to pull her children out, too.
Among the issues McPhedran noticed at the school: a teacher dressing up as a sumo wrestler; a teacher asking students to debate whether they would rather be a pilgrim or a Native American; and a lack of accommodations for virtual students.
McPhedran said she, along with the Robinsons and other families, brought up concerns with the intention of being helpful and improving the school. After the actions against the Robinsons, she said families are afraid to bring up problems.
The Robinsons are calling for USM to take several steps: diversify the school’s board administration and faculty; conduct racial sensitivity training for staff and students; and expand dedicated efforts to support students of underrepresented groups. Their call to action has been signed by dozens of former and current students and parents.
Follow Rory Linnane on Twitter: @RoryLinnane.