By Omar Jimenez, CNN
Craig and Kelly Robinson said they were shocked to receive a letter informing them their children would not be allowed back as students at the prestigious University School of Milwaukee (USM).
“We cannot continue a relationship with your family,” is what part of the enrollment termination letter read, sent at the end of last school year.
The students, at the time 11 and 9, were effectively removed.
“We feel like they were retaliated against because we brought up some issues that were sensitive to the administration,” said Craig Robinson, who is former first lady Michelle Obama’s brother.
Robinson said it started with giving the school feedback on teaching practices he and his wife believed were troubling, especially during the virtual learning period last year.
“The first thing we noticed was a repeated use of racial and ethnic stereotypes in actual classroom assignments,” Robinson said.
While he and his wife, Kelly Robinson, did not provide specifics, they stressed to CNN it was more about how the school treated their concerns.
“It’s the way that they dealt with it and the fact that they didn’t want to confront the actual issue and instead retaliated against us and our children,” Kelly Robinson told CNN.
So, the couple, along with their attorney Kim Motley, filed a civil lawsuit Monday alleging in part, “The School acted impermissibly to silence and to retaliate against those adversely affected by, and raising concerns about, the School’s unfair treatment of students of color and underrepresented students.”
The Robinsons now want a trial by jury and to be compensated for damages.
The school, however, has denied the allegations and said the Robinsons “deprived our teachers and administrators of the physically and emotionally safe environment.”
The school’s letter to the Robinsons, dated June 2021 and sent by head of school Steven Hancock, said the decision came down to how the couple dealt with teachers and administrators.
“You neither demonstrated respect for their expertise and professionalism nor consistently related with them in a respectful, trustworthy, fair, or kind manner,” part of the letter addressed to the Robinsons read. “You repeatedly engaged in disrespectful and demanding communications with and about our teachers and administrators.”
In response to the lawsuit, the school released a statement saying it could not comment on the specifics of the case, but said, “We can tell you that USM’s enrollment decisions had nothing to do with complaints of inequity or discrimination …
“We cannot and will not tolerate persistently disrespectful, bullying, or harassing behavior directed at our devoted and hardworking teachers and administrators,” the statement continued.
After reports aired on CNN and other media, Hancock released another statement to the University School of Milwaukee community.
“USM is fully prepared to vigorously defend itself against the allegations made in the family’s lawsuit, as well as misinformation this family has spread in the media,” Hancock said. “I reiterate my previous statement that non-renewing the enrollment of a school family is a last-resort option, but one that needed to be taken in this particular situation — not because of any actions of the students, but because of the actions of the parents.”
In their interview with CNN, the Robinsons denied the characterization of their behavior.
“Their statement is as astonishing as it is revealing,” Craig Robinson said of the first news release. “The tone with which we were giving ideas was just like we’re talking to you,” he added in a neutral, matter-of-fact manner.
“We were caught off guard,” Kelly Robinson added. “There was nothing that indicated that what we were doing and the manner in which we were communicating was unusual.”
In the school’s second statement, Hancock said the Robinsons “badly mischaracterized” three worksheets given last year to fifth graders and the school had taken their concerns “very seriously.”
“Ultimately, we did not find the material to be of concern, and shared this directly with the family,” he said.
CNN has reached out to the Robinsons’ representative for additional comment.
The enrollment termination letter cited no mention of the children’s behavior in its reasoning. They were described as students who embody USM’s “portrait of a graduate.”
“Our kids have really suffered the brunt of this,” Kelly Robinson told CNN as she began to cry. “They’ve heard people talking about how they must have done something terribly wrong, which couldn’t be further from the truth.”
She then tearfully recounted how one of her sons told her he recently dealt with an issue of racism in his new school, “but he didn’t tell us until the third time because he said he was afraid of getting in trouble.”
‘This wasn’t just about us’
The Robinsons said part of their reasoning in taking a formal step of litigation is that they had heard from others who shared similar experiences.
One part of the lawsuit alleges not only “unfair and retaliatory conduct” toward the Robinsons’ children but also a “broader pattern, extending over many years, of unfair treatment and insensitivity by USM toward its students of color and underrepresented students.”
For example, the lawsuit alleges that for years, in a since-abandoned teaching style, the school required fourth grade students to perform an Underground Railroad simulation.
“USM teachers told fourth grade students to wear old clothing or purchase used clothing from thrift stores. USM faculty acted as ‘slave catchers’ and were told to try to catch the students,” part of the lawsuit read. “During the simulation, students were to navigate through dark hallways and classrooms, while USM staff played sounds evoking whips, chains, and horses galloping to make the experience more vivid and intense.”
Hancock called the claims made in the lawsuit “completely inaccurate” and said the simulation last took place 10 years ago.
“During it, 4th grade students moved throughout parts of the school to stations where teachers and parent volunteers served in the roles of Underground Railroad conductors, providing guidance on routes to the next ‘safe place’ stations,” Hancock said. “Subsequent classroom lessons focused on the importance of Wisconsin’s role in the Underground Railroad, which was instrumental in helping enslaved people travel to freedom in Canada.”
Online, a call to action is circulating among a “group of parents and current and former University School of Milwaukee students,” pushing for school leadership to reverse what it calls a culture of “bias and insensitivity.”
More than 200 alumni, parents, and even students are listed as having signed on.
“I’ve also heard from many people whose stories won’t be on this website and who won’t be in public because they’re afraid of retaliation still,” said Kelly Robinson. “This is why we brought this forward as Craig said, this wasn’t just about us, this was about all of these other people who have also been through this.”
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CNN’s Steve Almasy contributed to this report.