Latasha Tolbert listened in disbelief as her sixth-grade daughter explained the layout of her classroom at Heights Community School in St. Paul. Some students sat in the back of the room, others had their desks facing the wall. All of these students were black, her daughter said.
Tolbert's inquiries provoked an investigation of Heights teacher Timothy Olmsted, who resigned after he was put on paid leave by the St. Paul Public School District.
But the resignation didn't satisfy parents, who filed a lawsuit that is now being moved to federal courts. The suit alleges that Olmsted verbally and physically discriminated against their children and that the school district failed to protect them.
Because the case involves a civil rights claim, either party can move the case to federal court, said Meg Kane, the attorney representing the Heights families. The district moved the case to federal court this summer.
The lawsuit states Olmsted made derogatory statements, calling students "fat, black and stupid" and saying, "You will never amount to anything."
"They're [the district] not doing their jobs," said Kane, commenting on the amount of time it took school officials to investigate. "I don't know about you, but that would be the end of the line for anyone else."
Kane got involved when the families came to her in January, shortly after Olmsted was put on paid leave.
But that was not the first time parents and students had complained to Heights Principal Jayne Ropella about Olmsted's behavior, the lawsuit said.
Tolbert said she made 98 calls and spent nearly eight hours on the phone with Ropella and other school officials from September to December discussing Olmsted's classroom, according to her phone records. But the lawsuit says no action was taken until January.
"She [Ropella] never really took me seriously," Tolbert said. "All they [school officials] were trying to do was keep me quiet until the end of the school year."
But district representatives denied the allegations, and said Tolbert's complaints were taken into consideration.
"The evidence will show that the district promptly investigated and addressed any complaints made regarding Mr. Olmsted," said Jeanette Bazis, the district's attorney.
Olmsted would not comment, but his lawyer, David Hashmall, released a statement, saying: "Mr. Olmsted denies any improper conduct and believes that the claims against him are baseless."
Suit cites history of problems
But Kane said the evidence shows a history of problems with Ropella and Olmsted.
In 2001, parents gathered 75 to 100 signatures to protest Ropella's selection as principal at Eastern Heights Elementary School. The parents stated Ropella was "difficult to work with" and that they were concerned about discrimination.
Olmsted has a "significant discipline record," according to the lawsuit and written reprimands from the district.
In 2003, he was suspended without pay for five days after he gave a sixth-grader "an offensive and inappropriate birthday card containing sexual innuendo" and told her to read it to the class. That same year, he was disciplined for requiring sixth-grade students to read an inappropriate novel, the suit said.
The lawsuit also cites a letter from the district reprimanding Olmsted's actions with a peer at a holiday party in December 2010. The letter states Olmsted pushed a coworker down on a sofa and lay on top of her in a "sexually suggestive fashion."
Tolbert said she is disappointed the district didn't look at Olmsted's file before allowing him to work with children, saying he should have been removed from the school system long ago.
This year, parents presented another petition, with 420 signatures, to the St. Paul school board, calling for Ropella to be transferred from Heights because of her handling of the allegations against Olmsted, Kane said. The district said that Ropella will remain as the principal at the school for the 2012-13 school year.
The road to federal court is a "long, hard slog of litigation," Kane said. She expects the case to go to trial in the fall of 2013.
Bazis said the district intends to "vigorously defend the lawsuit."
"The district will have a lot to say about this in court, but we need to make our case in the court of law," she said.
Asha Anchan • 612-673-4154