By Shereen Siewert
Wausau School District officials have declined to answer pointed questions about the fate of a teacher whose alleged racist and homophobic remarks prompted a state investigation, even as anger is mounting in the community.
Multiple students tell Wausau Pilot & Review that Wausau East Band teacher Rob Perkins has not been in the classroom for days and that they have been informed that he was “forced to resign.” District Communications Director Diana White said Perkins is “still employed” but has not responded to follow-up questions sent Wednesday asking whether his contract will continue, whether he has been in the classroom this week, whether he will continue teaching through the school year and whether the district is aware of planned protests by some band students during graduation ceremonies.
But district officials do appear to have some knowledge of planned protests. East Principal Deb Foster this week sent an email to parents notifying them of a decision to move graduation ceremonies from Thom Field to the East gymnasium.
“We know there’s some hesitation and frustration about the move,” Foster’s email reads. “We hear you, and we are also concerned about possible protests interrupting your students’ graduation ceremony. Our goal is to create a safe and positive environment for your students during a time when our school is receiving a lot of attention. Graduation should be about your students and celebrating their hard work and amazing accomplishments not only this year, but throughout their entire Wausau School District career. We don’t want anything or anyone to take away from that.”
Perkins is at the center of a controversy that erupted weeks ago after a student, a senior whose mother works for the district, reported multiple incidents dating back to November. Then, the student reported, Perkins was demonstrating percussion and used what some regard as an anti-Asian slur to describe the sound made by the instrument. Students told him the word made some people uncomfortable, but months later he allegedly chanted “ching-chong, ching-chong” while teaching, then “opened his mouth wide and stated that he shouldn’t say that while looking directly at” the student, who is Asian American.
In March, Perkins allegedly suggested the student might want to “wear a dress” as he instructed the boys in the class to get fitted for tuxedos. After the boy responded by giving Perkins the middle finger, Perkins allegedly went to the boy’s mother to complain. When the mother asked more about what happened, Perkins allegedly told her the “homophobic” thing he had said; the student’s mother told Perkins that he couldn’t say things like that and that she would report him to the administration. Perkins allegedly went back to the band room and said to the student, “(Your mom) says I have to be nice to you.”
The boy’s relatives alleged that the band director also used words like “monkey,” “chink,” and “faggot.” They said those words attacked their dignity and have caused hurt, and said that, in all, the student was victimized seven times.
The parents ultimately complained to the school and in April, Foster directed Perkins not to have any contact with the student. But the student’s family alleged Perkins ignored Foster’s directive and not only approached the student in the school’s hallway but appeared at a play rehearsal, even though Perkins had no role in the activity.
After the student’s parents met with Superintendent Keith Hilts, Perkins was placed on leave and an investigation was launched with Human Resources Director Tabatha Gundrum at the helm. In interviews, students said that Perkins’ humor at times, when racial or sexist in nature, caused “unease.”
The child’s father, who is not being named by Wausau Pilot & Review to protect the identity of his son, wrote on Facebook that the boy was “targeted by his teacher all year, who uses racist and anti-gay slurs openly and repeatedly in the classroom.” He confirmed to this newspaper that he was referring to Perkins in his social media post.
Superintendent Keith Hilts on April 27, without input from the Wausau School Board, announced Perkins would return to the classroom. Hilts, in a statement, said Perkins’ behavior was unprofessional but did not rise to the level of harassment. The district also engaged an outside consultant to provide “microaggression training,” but officials have so far declined to say who that consultant is or describe the nature of the training.
After Hilts announced Perkins’ return to school, Asian American leaders sharply criticized the district. Some speakers on Monday demanded Perkins be terminated and that district leaders be disciplined for their alleged failure to address the allegations. Others demanded an open investigation, a public apology and training for school staff. Some criticized the board for “not doing enough.”
And district officials have refused to explain how district policy defines “discrimination or harassment,” despite demands by many community leaders to explain their actions.
The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction then launched its own investigation.
Some students are outraged that Perkins has been the source of such controversy and have refuted the allegations. They say the band director is inclusive and ensures that everyone feels welcome in the band. One group of students from Wausau East created an Instagram profile, eastbandstudents, defending the teacher with a point-by-point rebuttal related to the allegations.
But an overwhelming majority of speakers during Wausau School Board meetings demanded action, while others told stories of their own harassment at the hands of other teachers in the district – pointing to a potentially far wider issue.
The family of the student appealed the district’s decision to reinstate Perkins, challenging the assertion that the racist and sexist comments allegedly made did not rise to unlawful harassment because they were made in “fun.” That, according to a press release from attorney Elisabeth Lambert of the Wisconsin Education Law and Policy Hub, is not a defense that is recognized by state law or district policy.
The appeal also alleges the Wausau School District failed to comply with technical requirements of its own policies and state law—including its failure to consider whether action was needed to ensure the student could continue safely learning while the investigation was ongoing. Lambert, who is representing the family in the appeal, said the district also failed to notify the student of his appeal rights, in violation of state regulations.
“So-called ‘fun’ based on offensive stereotypes and slurs is fun that marginalizes and excludes,” Lambert said in a statement. “Behavior that creates an offensive school environment based on race and sex is plainly discriminatory under state law. The District can’t be allowed to rewrite the law in order to let itself and its employee off the hook.”
A pattern of behavior?
Other students have since come forward to detail years of behavior that marginalized and degraded students. One former student, Katherine Plier, told the school board on May 8 about an incident in which Perkins employed a slapstick, which replicates the sound of a whip, near a Black student and asked “does that remind you of anything from your past?”
Another student described jokes targeting Latino students and said Perkins created an environment where race-based humor was acceptable.
Former WSB member Mary Thao asked the Wausau School Board, which has hired its own outside counsel in the investigation, to uphold and enforce policies that aim to provide a “safe and decent education environment” for students in the district.
“I believe anyone that creates an environment that’s hostile to anyone, environment that creates chaos, environment that is insulting, threatening and dehumanizing to any of our students should be held to the highest consequences,” Thao said.
Perkins has not responded to requests for comment and has not released a public statement on the matter. The student at the center of the complaint has not returned to school, and the district has not completed a safety plan for him, according to his family. He missed an awards ceremony in which he earned four scholarships and could miss graduation, where he was set to sing the national anthem.
The student’s aunt has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for legal and mental health expenses for the family. So far, the effort has raised more than $2,200. A contributor named Deborah Foster gave $25.