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Lawsuit against Hartland Schools and administrators alleges “unchecked” racial harassment of Black student

A federal lawsuit has been filed by a former Hartland High School student alleging that administrators failed to take seriously her complaints of racial harassment, including students calling her the n-word and making threats to lynch her.

20-year-old Tatayana Vanderlaan filed the suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Detroit and said that from the time she began attending Hartland High School in 2019, she “was exposed to an openly racist environment that, left unchecked, escalated into direct racial harassment and ultimately culminated in explicit threats of white supremacist violence, all of which was tacitly endorsed by teachers and by school and district leadership.”

At issue was an incident in March of 2021 in which 18-year-old Tatayana Vanderlaan posted to Facebook about repeated harassment she said she had endured at Hartland High School, including being called the n-word and being ridiculed about her hair and her appearance.

After that post went viral, Vanderlaan said she had to be escorted off campus due to a threat of being “lynched.” The Livingston County Sheriff’s Office then conducted an investigation, which resulted in stalking and assault charges filed against four teens.

Named in the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified monetary damages, were the Hartland Consolidated School District, Superintendent Chuck Hughes, Hartland High School Principal Kate Gregory and Vice Principal Emily Aluia.

The United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Michigan conducted a Title VI investigation last year into allegations of race discrimination by the district. It eventually concluded that the Hartland district had “cooperated fully with the investigation and voluntarily took a number of steps to address concerns that were raised during the investigation, including creating a School Board-level Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee, instituting training for staff and students, revising internal policies and practices regarding the investigation process for allegations of harassment, and adding counseling and social work staff.”

However, the lawsuit states that the district had entered into a letter of agreement that it had failed to “remedy the pervasive race-based harassment of Plaintiff and other Black students.”

The suit says the investigation found repeated incidents of race-based harassment and racist comments and said the defendants “tacitly approved, and maintained a policy of tacitly approving, egregious racial harassment, threats, and bullying by students.”

Among the racial slurs Vanderlaan says she had to endure included “names such as “moon cricket,” “n****r,” and “ugly negro woman,” told her to “go back to her plantation,” and mocked and grabbed at her hair on a regular basis.”

The suit noted an incident in February of 2020, in which a white female student called Vanderlaan the n-word in the lunchroom, sparking a confrontation. Vanderlaan was

Then escorted to the office by Assistant Principal Emily Aluia, “who dismissed the incident, telling Plaintiff it was just “bitches being bitches.” Aluia is alleged to have then sent Vanderlaan home while the White student was not disciplined.

After Vanderlaan made a complaint to Gregory, the lawsuit says she sent her back to class and did not remove any of the students who had been harassing her. Vanderlaan said she overheard “Tyner telling his friends, including Smith and Elliott, that Assistant Principal Jason Reck had told him that they weren’t going to do anything and that the boys should keep their mouths shut in order to protect the school’s image.”

The lawsuit says Vanderlaan again went to Gregory, providing her with texts and social media posts of racist behavior. Gregory is alleged to have said she would take care of it, but the same day, a classmate told Vanderlaan that a group of boys were talking about lynching her. Vanderlaan says she told Gregory, but was again sent back to class.

That’s when Vanderlaan says she called her grandfather and asked him to sign her out of school. The lawsuit says that the grandfather asked to have Gregory call him, but when that didn’t happen, he called the school himself and insisted Vanderlaan be escorted outside so she could leave.

“As Aluia escorted Plaintiff to her car, Aluia told Plaintiff that the culture at HHS “was what it was” and “she could always do online schooling if she can’t deal with what is going on,” stated the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says the harassment against Vanderlaan continued through the end of her senior year, and caused her to miss several weeks of school resulting in lower grades that negatively impacted her plans to attend college to be a nurse or physician.

Three of the four classmates who were charged in the case are named in the lawsuit; Dominic Tyner, Corbyn Smith and Benjamin Elliott. Tyner and Smith were charged with stalking and assault, while, Elliott was charged with assault and battery. A fourth classmate was charged as a juvenile and was not named. Tyner, Smith and Elliott were allowed to plead under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, keeping their convictions under seal if they successfully complete probation.

A request for comment was made to Superintendent Hughes, but has yet to be returned.

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