Craig Robinson and his wife Kelly Robinson arrive at a state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore at the White House on Aug. 2, 2016.
Yuri Gripas—AFP/Getty Images
April 21, 2022 1:42 PM EDT

Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s brother is suing a Milwaukee private school that his children attended, accusing the school of racial bias and insensitivity toward students of color.

Craig Robinson and his wife Kelly say their two sons, aged 9 and 11, were dismissed from the University School of Milwaukee (USM) in 2021, after the parents “raised concerns about USM’s treatment of its students of color and submitted bias incident reports on behalf of underrepresented students,” according to a lawsuit filed in in a Milwaukee County circuit court this week.

The school, which charges up to $30,000 for annual tuition, enrolls about 1,100 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.

“Rather than responding openly and constructively to the concerns raised by the Robinsons regarding inclusiveness and racial equity, in keeping with the Common Trust, and then working to ensure equal treatment for students of color and underrepresented students at USM, including the Robinson children, the School inflicted extreme and unwarranted harm on two of its model students of color,” the lawsuit states, calling the school’s action “part of a broader pattern, extending over many years, of unfair treatment and insensitivity.”

The lawsuit alleges that the school failed to address racial epithets directed at students of color and engaged in “racially insensitive practices,” including requiring students to participated in an “‘Underground Railroad’ simulation,” in which students of color were instructed to “act like ‘runaway slaves’ while USM faculty acted as ‘slave catchers.'” The school ultimately discontinued the activity.

Craig and Kelly Robinson said they became concerned about the school’s culture after observing some of their sons’ classes while they were learning from home during the pandemic.

“We were surprised and troubled by the repeated use of racial and ethnic stereotypes in certain assignments,” the Robinsons said in an open letter about the suit. “We also witnessed a disregard for children who were not physically present in class and an apparent insensitivity to socio-economic status — an issue that was put in stark relief during the pandemic.”

But when they raised concerns, they say school administrators reacted with “sharp resistance and hostility” and ultimately terminated their sons’ enrollment.

In a statement, the University School of Milwaukee pushed back against the claim that the Robinsons’ sons were dismissed because of their complaints about discrimination.

“USM’s enrollment decisions had nothing to do with complaints of inequity or discrimination and we intend to vigorously defend the school against any claim to the contrary,” the school said in a statement posted on Facebook, while declining to comment on specifics of the lawsuit.

“We cannot and will not tolerate persistently disrespectful, bullying, or harassing behavior directed at our devoted and hardworking teachers and administrators,” the statement said. “When such parental conduct threatens the educational environment we have created, we have no choice but to take action.”

The Robinsons aren’t alone. More than 200 USM parents, students and alumni signed a petition, calling on the school to take action to change a “culture of bias and insensitivity.”

And around the country, many Black families have withdrawn their children from public and private schools, some turning to homeschooling in an effort to combat whitewashed history lessons and racism in school. Homeschooling increased nationwide after the pandemic disrupted in-person learning, most significantly among Black families, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

The Robinsons said they will donate any money they receive as part of the lawsuit toward programs aimed at promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools.

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Write to Katie Reilly at [email protected].

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