A new investigation is underway regarding a Wausau East High School band teacher’s conduct after an outside attorney overturned a prior decision to dismiss a complaint against him.
An attorney appointed by the Wausau School Board conducted an independent investigation into homophobic and racist comments allegedly made in the classroom by Rob Perkins. An earlier investigation conducted by district officials resulted in Perkins’ reinstatement, when human resources head Tabatha Gundrum found that the teacher’s language did not rise to the level of harassment. Instead, Gundrum dismissed Perkins’ comments as part of an effort to create a “fun” environment in the classroom.
The Title IX complaint was filed in March by a student who reported the behavior to his parents, one of whom is employed by the district. Title IX complaints center on discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation or gender identity. Federal regulations outline a specific process that must be followed when such complaints are filed. Those guidelines, the attorney found, were not followed by the district in this instance.
Attorney Lance Trollop, who is vice president of the Wausau School Board, confirmed that Alana Leffler was designated as the decision-maker for the appeal of the Title IX complaint.
“She has overturned the dismissal of that specific complaint on procedural grounds,” Trollop said, adding that the investigation is ongoing.
Leffler, an attorney from the Buelow Vetter law firm, was appointed by the school board after fresh charges of harassment and anti-Asian slurs were leveled against Perkins during a board meeting on May 8. Leffler’s profile on the Waukesha-based law firm mentions her legal expertise on “Title IX,” “student discipline,” “student bullying and harassment,” “employee misconduct investigations,” and “employee discipline and dismissal,” among others.
On May 8, the boy’s relatives alleged that the band director used words like “monkey,” “chink,” “faggot,” and “ching chong.” They said those words attacked their dignity and have caused hurt, and said that, in all, the student was victimized seven times.
The boy’s father and leaders from the Asian community also slammed the district’s decision to allow Perkins’ return.
Additionally, during public comments at the May 8 meeting, some students alleged that the district has an ongoing racism problem and said district officials have consistently ignored complaints from students.
That appeared to spur the board into action, prompting a decision to hire Leffler.
The school board held a closed session on May 22 to discuss the fate of the band director, who is also under investigation by Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Leffler has not responded to questions from this newspaper.
The Wausau School District allegedly violated federal process rules because Gundrum is not a certified Title IX coordinator, according to the Daily Herald report. Further, Gundrum did not explain why Perkins’ conduct failed to meet the definition of harassment and the decision was filed without giving the student’s parents an opportunity to respond, according to the report.
But district officials are pushing back against the details in the report. Communications Director Diana White on Monday told Wausau Pilot & Review Gundrum is indeed a Title IX coordinator and said the district “did follow School Board policy during the investigation.”
The family of the student ultimately 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.
“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.”
Perkins has not responded to requests for comment and has not released a public statement on the matter.
White said that “because of many factors, including the ongoing investigation, the District is unable to comment at this time.”