Wausau’s Asian American community and allies have rallied around the family of a student targeted by racist and homophobic comments from a Wausau East High School band teacher.
That teacher is now under state investigation and could lose his license over the remarks – now reported to be merely a few incidents in a years-long pattern.
The state Department of Public Instruction is also looking into whether or not the school district’s response was adequate. An investigation found that Robert Perkins did use “insensitive” language, but it did not rise to the level of “discrimination or harassment,” and that Perkins used insensitive language to create a sense of “fun” in the classroom.
Perkins remains in the classroom; the student who was the target of his racist and homophobic remarks does not.
The incidents this academic year involve a senior boy whose mother works at the high school. The incidents were described to Madison365 by the student’s parents and outlined in a Facebook post by the student’s aunt. They date back to November, when 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.
The student’s parents became involved in March, when 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.” The student responded by showing Perkins a middle finger. Perkins then went to the student’s mother to tell her the student “flipped me off.” When asked why the student would do that, Perkins told her the “homophobic” thing he had said; the student’s mother told Perkins that he couldn’t say things like that and that she would report him to the administration. Perkins went back to the band room and said to the student, “(Your mom) says I have to be nice to you.”
In early April, after the student’s parents made contact with school principal Deborah Foster, who directed Perkins to no longer have any contact with or even be in the same room as the student. The student’s parents say Perkins ignored that directive, approaching the student in the hallway before school and even appearing at rehearsals for the spring play, which the student was performing in but where Perkins had no involvement.
The student’s parents then sought a meeting with district superintendent Dr. Keith Hilts. They said they felt that meeting was “positive,” and Hilts placed Perkins on leave on April 10, pending an investigation.
Human Resources Director Tabatha Gundrum conducted that investigation, interviewing several students and teachers. Neither the notes from those interviews nor Gundrum’s report to Hilts have been released; however, Hilts wrote in a summary (page 1, page 2) that while Perkins “did engage in insensitive and unprofessional conduct…that language does not rise to the level of discrimination or harassment.” He further noted that several students said Perkins tries to create a “fun” environment using humor that sometimes “causes unease.”
In a statement, Hilts wrote, “When appropriate, a preferred path is to use the situation to grow from. That is our path.”
Perkins returned to the classroom on April 26 with something of a celebration, according to the student’s parents. The district also engaged an outside consultant to provide “microaggression training,” but has declined to say who that consultant was or describe the nature of the training.
District officials have also refused to say how district policy defines “discrimination or harassment,” despite being asked by many community leaders.
“I have scoured through all of our board policies, whether it’s related to educators related to students, whether it’s administration, I have looked at every single board policy,” said Mary Thao, a leader of Wausau’s Hmong community and a former member of both the school board and city council. “I cannot find the levels, the parameters, the criteria on how they determine how this did not rise to that level. Somebody has to be able to disclose that. I can’t find it in any handbook, any board policy. I don’t know where that came from.”
The student, who has already fulfilled the requirements to graduate and intends to attend UW-Milwaukee in the fall, has not been in school because the district, his parents said, has not outlined or implemented a safety plan for him. He missed the awards ceremony where he was awarded four scholarships, and he may miss graduation, where he was to sing the national anthem.
“It’s really hard to take things in perspective, because I’m still feeling them now,” the student’s father said. “It’s just surreal at times. This administration doesn’t have one bit of sense of care for my son. And it just left him in the dark while this man is still free to roam around the place and he’s happy while he’s at school … I don’t think it’s fair for my son.”
The student’s family has filed an appeal with the state Department of Public Instruction to examine the district’s investigation and its findings.
According to a press release from attorney Elisabeth Lambert of the Wisconsin Education Law and Policy Hub, who is representing the family on the appeal, the appeal specifically challenges the District’s assertion that the band director’s racial and sexist comments did not constitute unlawful harassment because they were made in “fun,” a defense she said is recognized neither by state law nor district policy. The appeal also highlights the District’s failure to comply with technical requirements of its own policies and state law—including its failure to consider whether action was needed to ensure the student could continue safely learning while the investigation was ongoing. Lambert said the district also failed to notify the student of his appeal rights, in violation of state regulations.
“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.”
Lambert also told Madison365 that DPI, on its own volition, initiated an independent investigation of Perkins that could result in the suspension of his teaching license.
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Perkins’ use of racism in the name of “fun” appears now to have been a years-long pattern of behavior that was never reported to figures of authority.
One former student, a Latina named Olivia who graduated in 2019, said it started in her very first encounter with Perkins. She told Madison365 in an interview that she came to summer band camp with her older brother, and upon opening the band room door, Perkins said, “Oh, it’s Mexican One and Mexican Two.” Olivia said he repeatedly referred to her brother as “Pedro” or “Cheech.” On another occasion, she remembered Perkins offering a replacement mouthpiece to her — she played tuba and euphonium – saying, “try not to get salsa on it.”
Another former student, Katherine Plier, who graduated in 2016, told the school board at its May 8 meeting that Perkins employed a slapstick – a percussion instrument that replicates the sound of a whip – near a Black student and said, “Does that remind you of anything from your past?”
Both Olivia and Plier described Perkins as a volatile man who could turn frightening at any moment, which is part of why no one pushed back against his racist remarks.
“I just didn’t want to be a problem child, or be sensitive, not take a joke or whatever,” Olivia said. “It didn’t happen every day. It wasn’t a thing where he wanted to embarrass me at every given second. He made inappropriate comments, but he should have read the room. He should have known that it was uncomfortable. There were in fact times where I let him know it was uncomfortable and he still acted like that.”
Olivia also said she was regularly the butt of racist jokes from fellow students, and that Perkins “created an environment” where such jokes were acceptable.
The community response
After Perkins returned to school, the student’s parents reached out to friends in the community, including Thao. Wausau’s Hmong and broader Asian American community have responded with public support and demands that the school district revisit its investigation.
More than 30 people spoke, almost universally in support of the student, at the board’s May 8 meeting. One teacher presented a letter signed by 65 members of the Wausau East faculty and staff in support of the student.
“We trusted you to follow your procedures and make the right legal and ethical decision,” the student’s aunt told the board.
“While we’re here to discuss one incident, I’m here to tell you … this is a systemic problem,” said Christine Song. “Lots of school districts have the same issues and I don’t feel that you’re addressing that effectively as administration or as a board.”
“Anyone who accepts these behaviors as non-harassment or non-discriminatory is as guilty as the one who displayed the actions,” said Dr. Shoua Yang.
“If you’re feeling a little called out, and you’re getting a glimpse of what it feels like to be an Asian American at (Wausau) East every single day,” said Plier.
In a subsequent interview, former school board member Thao said she was disappointed in the board.
“I would have loved to see the Wausau school board be more engaged than they have been. I believe that anybody of authority … has the right to take action,” she said “I truly believe that they could have stepped in if they wanted to, if they chose to, as a governing board. I understand due process when it comes to employee relations. But when you are the leading body of your school district, you have every right to take charge, and lead.”
Later in that meeting, the board approved contract renewals for many of the district’s teachers, including Perkins. One school board member, Pat McKee, asked whether the board could reconsider the renewal of “one person;” however, Gundrum said that wouldn’t be allowed because such a consideration hadn’t been noticed on the agenda.
A special meeting set for May 15, scheduled to go into closed session to discuss an employment matter, was canceled. A district representative said the meeting was “simply no longer needed,” but didn’t elaborate.
The student’s family told Madison365 that the school administration has said they will hire outside counsel to conduct an independent investigation; the district has not announced any details of such a plan, however.
Perkins has not made any public statements on the matter. District officials referred to Hilt’s statement following the internal investigation and declined requests for interviews.
The student’s aunt has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for legal and mental health expenses; so far, it’s raised more than $2,100.