Education

Wolf Branch settles bullying case

The Acoff family — Dwayne Acoff II, center, his father Dwayne Acoff, left, and mother Premissa Acoff — fought against racial bullying at Wolf Branch School District 113.
The Acoff family — Dwayne Acoff II, center, his father Dwayne Acoff, left, and mother Premissa Acoff — fought against racial bullying at Wolf Branch School District 113. News-Democrat file photo

A Swansea family whose son experienced racial bullying says it now has closure following a resolution agreement between Wolf Branch School District 113 and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Premissa Acoff filed a complaint last year with the Office for Civil Rights after her son, Dwayne Acoff Jr., who is black, was the target of racial slurs and physical altercations when he was a student at Wolf Branch Middle School.

Officials with Wolf Branch School District voluntarily agreed to the resolution, which “shall not constitute an admission of liability or wrongdoing,” according to the seven-page agreement obtained by the News-Democrat.

The agreement also states: “The district has at no time hereto been subject to a finding of violation by the OCR.”

Superintendent Scott Harres said the civil rights office not finding a violation “affirms the district did act appropriately” when it handled the allegations made by the Acoff family.

Premissa Acoff said she’s sad it took so long to reach a resolution. “Was it worth it? No. But was it necessary? Yes,” she said. “The main thing we asked for in the beginning we got in the end a year and a half later.”

The Acoffs had pushed for the district to revise its bullying policy, and that’s one of the requirements of the resolution.

“It should have been a simpler process when you are talking about our kids,” Premissa Acoff said. “It was extremely difficult as a parent to navigate all those systems to get something done.”

The Acoff family also filed a civil lawsuit against the district, but they later dropped their suit.

Since the civil rights office opened its investigation, the district has taken steps to address the allegation and and the way those types of allegations are handled. The district implemented several new programs, including a cultural diversity committee in cooperation with the Center for Racial Harmony in Belleville. The committee is overseen by middle school Principal Jeff Burkett.

Burkett also worked with the Anti-Defamation League, a national organization with an office in St. Louis, to bring the World of Difference initiative to Wolf Branch Middle School. The program addressed a variety of topics including bullying and cyber-bullying.

Wolf Branch Middle School also became a No Place For Hate school as part of a national campaign aimed at promoting harmony and respect for differences. As part of the No Place For Hate initiative, the school must participate in three or more school-wide activities that celebrate diversity.

The district’s staff has also received training on diversity.

Harres said the district is encouraging students and staff to promote diversity and tolerance.

Last month, Wolf Branch Middle School eighth-grader Korrie Allen and other students at the school portrayed influential African-American historical figures as part of a living wax museum.

The OCR wants to know, Harres said, that the district isn’t just going to “talk the talk but also walk the walk.”

As part of the agreement, the district agreed to pay the Acoff family $75 as reimbursement for costs incurred for therapy services for their son.

“I didn’t like fighting them,” Premissa Acoff said of the district, “but I had to and I was going to. It was a worthwhile thing not only for my son but for the other kids, too.”

The district also agreed in the resolution to take steps necessary to ensure that students enrolled at the district’s Wolf Branch Middle School are not subjected to a hostile environment on the basis of race, color or national origin, and will promptly investigate all incidents of alleged harassment of students and take appropriate disciplinary action against students found to have engaged in harassment.

“We are already doing a majority of what was in the agreement,” Harres said.

The agreement required the district to revise the policy and grievance procedures to include the following:

▪  A requirement that reports of bullying or harassment of a student based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability and age are processed and reviewed under the requirements of both the policy and grievance procedures.

▪  A requirement in the policy and grievance procedures that in determining whether a hostile environment exists, the district will utilize the preponderance-of-evidence standard.

▪  A recommendation in the policy that district staff who observe harassment intervene to stop the harassment unless circumstances would make such intervention dangerous.

▪  An explanation in the policy of the duty of all staff to report harassment to the designated district employees and the consequences for not reporting.

Her son Dwayne Acoff Jr. is now a freshman at Belleville East. She said he is doing well.

“I’m just glad it’s over,” Premissa Acoff said. “He’s happy. He’s content.”

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at jforsythe1@bnd.com or 618-239-2562. Follow her on Twitter: @BND_JForsythe.

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