MILWAUKEE — The brother of former first lady Michelle Obama is suing a prestigious Milwaukee-area private school over issues of inclusiveness and racism.
In a lawsuit filed Monday, Craig and Kelly Robinson claim the University School of Milwaukee improperly terminated their two sons’ enrollment at the school, despite being model students.
In the document filed in the Milwaukee County Court, the Robinsons say USM ended their kids’ enrollment after the parents spoke up about racially insensitive learning materials. Craig Robinson says because of the pandemic, with his sons learning from home, they became aware of the issues and raised concerns to the school.
“That opened up a window into the classroom and what we saw was a repeated use of racial and ethnic stereotypes in actual assignments and a disregard for children who weren’t physically in the classroom and an insensitivity to socio-economic status,” Craig Robinson said. “We just raised our concerns about these different biases, not thinking that it would escalate into anything.”
The Robinsons say their sons were summarily dismissed shortly thereafter.
Part of the lawsuit describes a guideline at USM where parents are expected to cooperate with the school. If not, the head of school has the right to take action up to dismiss a student.
In an email sent in April, USM Head of School Steve Hancock wrote that the couple "continue to directly engage with USM's fifth-grade teachers and administrators in a manner that is not consistent with the school's Common Trust and Core Values--including via numerous emails, texts, and conversations that are disrespectful and deflating."
The children were in fifth and third grades at the time.
“We thought it was a two-way street,” Kelly Robinson said. “We were sharing with him, he was sharing his thoughts and observations and we did provide a lot of information about what we heard, what we saw and what we thought about the curriculum and academics. We were told that not only were we partnering but the work that we were doing and sharing was valued. I was told that I should be on his payroll for the amount of work that I was doing. I was also told he said that I’d given him his marching orders for the next five years.”
The lawsuit describes two other incidents not involving their sons, where the school showed signs of racial insensitivity.
As recently as the early 2010s, the lawsuit says the school had students participate in an “Underground Railroad simulation” where students acted as runaway slaves and faculty, as slave catchers.
In addition, the family says within the last two years, multiple white students used racial slurs and acted in racist manner towards students of color, other than their two sons, with no fear of reprisal from USM.
The Robinsons said they initially chose USM for their sons in 2016 because of its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Although now, they feel like that commitment was lip service.
“I absolutely do,” Craig Robinson said. “I thought their bias incident reporting system was a way for them to help in changing the culture and understanding that there are biases because there are people who are reporting them. It was actually turned against us in the end and now I’ve learned that there is no longer a bias incident reporting system at University School Milwaukee.”
The school declined to be interviewed because of the ongoing lawsuit, but they did provide a letter sent to parents from Hancock.
"We regard highly the privacy and confidentiality of our community members and we cannot comment on the specifics of matters involving threatened or pending litigation. However, we can tell you that 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," Hancock's statement read in part. "We cannot and will not tolerate persistently disrespectful, bullying, or harassing behavior directed at our devoted and hardworking teachers and administrators."