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Investigation finds Wausau teacher engaged in racist, homophobic discrimination, and school district failed in response


An external investigation has found that a Wausau East High School band teacher did in fact engage in racist and homophobic discrimination, and that school district officials didn’t do enough in response to a family’s complaints, according to an attorney representing the family of a student.

Elisabeth Lambert represents the Vongphadky family, whose child was the subject of racist and homophobic comments from band director Rob Perkins, who resigned from the district in June.

Last spring, a complaint alleged that Perkins was attempting to demonstrate the sound he wanted from a percussionist, but used a common anti-Asian slur. Several students apparently told him he shouldn’t say that word, but he said he could say whatever he wanted. Months later, he chanted “ching-chong, ching-chong” to demonstrate the rhythm he wanted; he then “opened his mouth wide and stated that he shouldn’t say that while looking directly at” the Asian American student. 

Months later, the same student said, Perkins was telling the male band students to prepare to get fitted for tuxedos, but said to the student in question, “unless you want to wear a dress.”

In April, the student’s parents made contact with East High principal Deborah Foster, who directed Perkins to no longer have any contact with the student; a directive he apparently ignored. An investigation by human resources director Tabatha Gundrum found that Perkins’ conduct was “unprofessional” but did “not rise to the level of discrimination or harassment.”

More than 30 members of the Wausau community – mostly Asian Americans, along with several allies – spoked forcefully at a subsequent school board meeting, demanding stronger action. 

The school board then retained attorney Alana Leffler of the Buelow Vetter law firm to conduct an independent investigation. In early June, she declared the internal investigation invalid, and undertook a new investigation. That investigation was presented to the school board last week, Lambert said. A copy of the report was provided to the Vongphadky family, but is not publicly available in order to protect student privacy. Lambert, the Vongphadky family attorney, shared passages with Madison365. Madison365 has also requested a copy of the report, redacted to protect student privacy, under Wisconsin’s open record law.

“This investigation concludes that a reasonable person in the student’s shoes – meaning age, sexual orientation, and other circumstances, including the fact the student was a student under Mr. Perkins’ supervision and authority – would find Mr. Perkins’ conduct to be sufficiently severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies equal access to the district’s education program or activity,” Lambert read from the report.

Lambert noted that Leffler found additional facts that were not uncovered in Gundrum’s initial investigation. 

For example, after making the “ching chong” sounds in a band rehearsal, “Mr. Perkins commented to another teacher that those sounds sounded like dinner conversation at my client’s house,” Lambert said. Those comments were not reported previously.

“The report couldn’t substantiate that the sounds were made in the classroom with the intent to be racial slurs,” Lambert added. “But this other comment happened outside the classroom and the investigators sort of treated it as affecting Perkins’s credibility with respect to his racial mindset.”

Leffler also substantiated allegations that another student was called “a racial insult” and that the administration failed to investigate. 

Leffler’s report also found that Foster, the school principal, failed in multiple ways to communicate with the family involved.

“Ms. Foster claimed she led the charge on developing a safety plan, but she was not sure whether or how it was communicated to the family,” Lambert said. “And then there’s a number of specific examples of Ms. Foster saying that there were plans in place for various things, but there’s no evidence that those plans were communicated to the Vongphakdy (family).”

WSAW reported last week that Foster is no longer principal of Wausau East, but will take on a different administrative role in the district. The Wausau School District website has not yet been updated to indicate what new role she’ll take on. 

It is not clear whether Foster leaving East was related to the investigation.

Meanwhile, two separate investigations by the state Department of Public Instruction are ongoing: one at the request of the student’s family to determine whether Perkins engaged in discrimination and whether the school district responded appropriately, and a second, initiated by DPI, to determine whether Perkins should keep his teaching license.

In response to Leffler’s investigation, the school district issued a statement that reads: “The safety of every student and staff member is the top priority of Wausau School District administration and the Wausau School Board.  At every step of this investigation, actions were taken to protect all of the parties involved.  Attorney Leffler’s investigation gathered and considered new information.  She substantiated some, but not all of the allegations against Mr. Perkins.  Ultimately, she concluded that Mr. Perkins’ conduct violated Board Policy.”

Lambert said the family, even though their child has graduated, wants the district to make changes to ensure this doesn’t happen to another student.

“The Vongphakdy family calls on the District to take strong action to right these documented wrongs and ensure they don’t happen again to another family,” Lambert wrote in a press release. “They call for a public apology; disciplinary action and training for the Administrators who mishandled their complaint; training for Administrators, staff and students on how to recognize and respond to discriminatory harassment; review and revision of the District’s discrimination complaint procedures; and appointment of a district-level equity officer to oversee these efforts and other inclusion work.”

Lambert said she hopes the Vongphadky family inspires others to stand up.

“I think a big takeaway message is just about the importance of a fair process. And that’s really what the family here did so beautifully, was to fight for their process rights,” she said. “There’s an understanding that initial process was not transparent and didn’t didn’t provide reasons for the outcomes that it yielded. And they didn’t, you know, they fought for something that made more sense. And to its credit, the district retained this attorney who did provide a thorough process with opportunities for both sides to have input and understand the evidence that had been presented. As a result of that fair and transparent process, there was an outcome that’s reliable and an opportunity for some accountability.”