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Michelle Obama’s brother suing University School of Milwaukee over claims of racial bias in curriculum

Kelly and Craig Robinson
Posted at 2:38 PM, Apr 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-20 18:12:52-04

MILWAUKEE — The brother of America’s only African-American First Lady is suing a prestigious Milwaukee-area private school over issues of inclusiveness and racism.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, Craig and Kelly Robinson claim the University School of Milwaukee improperly terminated their two sons’ enrollment at the school, despite being model students.

In the document filed in the Milwaukee County Court, the Robinsons say USM ended their kids’ enrollment after the parents spoke up about racially insensitive learning materials. Craig Robinson says because of the pandemic, with his sons learning from home, they became aware of the issues and raised concerns to the school.

“That opened up a window into the classroom and what we saw was a repeated use of racial and ethnic stereotypes in actual assignments and a disregard for children who weren’t physically in the classroom and an insensitivity to socio-economic status,” Craig Robinson said. “We just raised our concerns about these different biases, not thinking that it would escalate into anything.”

The Robinsons say their sons were summarily dismissed shortly thereafter.

Part of the lawsuit describes a guideline at USM where parents are expected to cooperate with the school. If not, the Head of School has the right to take actions up to dismissing a student.

One of the exhibits is a letter from the Head of School, Steve Hancock to Kelly Robinson.

“Unfortunately, over the course of this school year, you have not fulfilled the foregoing commitments as a partner to USM and its Middle School teachers and administrators," the letter says. "Despite our continued efforts and requests, you continue to directly engage with USM's fifth grade teachers and administrators in a manner that is not consistent with the school's Common Trust and Core Values--including via numerous emails, texts, and conversations that are disrespectful and deflating. These communications not only demonstrate a breakdown in your trust of and respect for USM's Middle School educators, but have also adversely impacted the Middle School educational environment, including the ability of our teachers and administrators to successfully provide vital services to our students.”

“We thought it was a two-way street,” Kelly Robinson said. “We were sharing with him, he was sharing his thoughts and observations and we did provide a lot of information about what we heard, what we saw and what we thought about the curriculum and academics. We were told that not only were we partnering but the work that we were doing and sharing was valued. I was told that I should be on his payroll for the amount of work that I was doing. I was also told he said that I’d given him his marching orders for the next five years.”

The lawsuit describes two other incidents not involving their sons, where the school showed signs of racial insensitivity. As recently as the early 2010s, the lawsuit says the school had students participate in an “Underground Railroad simulation” where students acted as runaway slaves and faculty, as slave catchers. In addition, the family says within the last two years, multiple white students used racial slurs and acted in racist manner towards students of color, other than their two sons, with no fear of reprisal from USM.

The Robinsons said they initially chose USM for their sons in 2016 because of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Although now, they feel like that commitment was lip service.

“I absolutely do,” Craig Robinson said. “I thought their bias incident reporting system was a way for them to help in changing the culture and understanding that there are biases because there are people who are reporting them. It was actually turned against us in the end and now I’ve learned that there is no longer a bias incident reporting system at University School Milwaukee.”

The University School of Milwaukee declined an interview today because of the open lawsuit. It did provide this letter sent to parents from its Head of Schools, Steve Hancock.

“Dear University School of Milwaukee Community,

Today, a former school family filed a lawsuit against USM. The lawsuit alleges that the school’s decision to non-renew the enrollment of the family’s two children constituted an effort to retaliate against the family for raising concerns about the treatment of students of color and underrepresented students. The former school family has also been in contact with media to discuss their legal case. We regard highly the privacy and confidentiality of our community members and we cannot comment on the specifics of matters involving threatened or pending litigation. However, we can tell you that USM’s enrollment decisions had nothing to do with complaints of inequity or discrimination and we intend to vigorously defend the school against any claim to the contrary.

We cannot and will not tolerate persistently disrespectful, bullying, or harassing behavior directed at our devoted and hardworking teachers and administrators. Such conduct that makes faculty feel unsafe not only violates our Common Trust pledge and Parent-School Partnership, but also interferes with USM’s operations and precludes a positive and constructive working relationship between the school and the families we proudly serve. When such parental conduct threatens the educational environment we have created, we have no choice but to take action.

We are committed to our justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion programming and do not tolerate discrimination of any kind. We encourage any member of our community who believes they have experienced or witnessed discrimination to promptly report it. Consistent with our established and enforced policies, all such reports will be taken seriously. We actively encourage and highly value feedback from all our constituents regarding our educational programming. It is through continuously examining our practices and curriculum that we remain a strong institution.

As you know, at USM we take great pride in the supportive and inclusive community we intentionally strive to create. We believe our students can only be truly prepared for college and life when they are exposed to thinking and viewpoints beyond their own. For that reason, we embrace diversity in all of its forms. We seek to create an environment and culture where members of our community are provided with different perspectives, are taught to think broadly and develop cultural competency, and understand the importance of relating to one another with respect and kindness.

The decision to non-renew or terminate an enrollment contract is not unprecedented at USM—although it is a last resort. We must abide by the principles of our mission to provide an exceptional education to all of our students in a supportive and inclusive community, built on the foundation of our mutual promise to relate to one another with respect, trust, honesty, fairness, and kindness. We remain grateful for your continuous commitment to that mission.

This message is being shared with all members of our community, including current and prospective families, alumni and parents of alumni, and our faculty, staff, and trustees, and will also be shared publicly. Please know that while we cannot comment on the specifics of this family’s pending lawsuit, we are more than happy to discuss our school’s mission, programming, and policies with you.”

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