A mother’s lawsuit alleges Hawkins County schools didn’t stop racist attacks

White students harassed a Black eighth-grader, suggesting he picked cotton, staging a mock slave auction and using racial slurs

By: - May 27, 2022 7:01 am

Church Hill Middle School. (Photo: Hawkins County School District)

The mother of a Hawkins County eighth-grader says in a lawsuit filed this week that her son was repeatedly subjected to racially-motivated attacks, and the school system did nothing to stop them.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Greeneville Tuesday, details a slew of racially-motivated attacks by white students, at least three of which were recorded by the students and posted on social media. Erika Qualls contends in the lawsuit she repeatedly sought help from administrators at Church Hill Middle School and Hawkins County Director of Schools Matt Hixson, but they either ignored or downplayed her complaints.

“(Qualls’ son) was regularly subjected to a pervasive, racially-hostile school environment in which he was repeatedly referred to by the ‘N-word’; subjected to a barrage of other racial epithets, such as ‘monkey’; shown hate-based depictions of a KKK member holding a torch and noose; taunted as the brunt of a ‘slave auction’; chased and ridiculed with a stuffed monkey; and shown depictions of African-American caricatures being stabbed and shot,” the lawsuit stated.

“(Qualls) alleges that Hawkins County Board of Education officials knowingly tolerated, condoned, and were deliberately indifferent to the pattern of racial harassment suffered by (her son), thereby depriving him of equal access to educational opportunity and resulting in severe emotional injury,” the lawsuit continued.

Hixson said in a statement provided Thursday to the Tennessee Lookout the school system “vehemently” denies “that our school system tolerates racial discrimination or harassment of any kind.”

“When such allegations are brought to our attention regarding student conduct, we take steps to investigate the same and to discipline those found responsible,” Hixson said in the statement. “Hawkins County Schools and the many educators who work within our school system strive to create an environment where all students, regardless of their race, feel safe and welcome. And, we will defend ourselves in court against any claims to the contrary.”

Among the allegations in the suit:

  • White students chased the boy with a stuffed monkey and posted video on social media captioned “monkey chasing monkey.”
  • The boy was taunted during a mock slave auction.
  • Called a “n***** b****.
  • That the Black student was given a drawing of a Ku Klux Klan member holding a torch and noose standing over “Monkey Island.”
  • A white student handed the Black one a tag labeled “100% Cotton” and thank the Black student for picking the cotton for the shirt.

Attorneys Larry Crain and Emily Castro, who represent Qualls, are seeking an injunction against the school system to prevent further abuse and $2.5 million in damages.

The lawsuit includes screenshots as proof of the abuse, including a photograph taken from a Snapchat video posted by white students at the school with the caption “monkey chasing monkey.” The video shows white students, one of whom was holding a stuffed monkey, taunting Qualls’ son, who is biracial, as he sought to flee.

According to the lawsuit, Hixson “blamed the COVID-19 epidemic for the outbreak of racial hatred among the students, whom he said spent so much time at home during the pandemic.”

Qualls’ son, the lawsuit stated, was one of only five minority students at Church Hill, which has a total student population of roughly 400.

Racial slurs

Qualls enrolled her son at Church Hill in the fall of 2021. Within two weeks, the racially-motivated attacks began, according to the lawsuit.

In the first incident detailed in the lawsuit, the boy was sitting in class when a white student walked in, shoved the boy and yelled, “Fight me, you (expletive) monkey.” Qualls’ son ignored the white student, but he persisted.

“While eating lunch (that same day) in the school cafeteria, the same white student yelled at (Qualls’ son) from across the cafeteria, calling him a “n***** b****.”

“(Qualls) alleges that this incident occurred within hearing distance of school faculty, but no corrective action was taken by any of the school staff,” the lawsuit stated. “Near the end of the school day, (the same white student) stalked (Qualls’ son) through the gym and out the back exit of the school building. While (Qualls’ son) was on his way to football practice, (the same white student) yelled, ‘Come back here, n*****’ and, when (Qualls’ son) turned around, (the white student) slapped him in the face.”

When Qualls’ son sought “to defend himself against this physical and verbal assault,” a teacher “separated” the pair, put the white student on “his school bus” to go home and escorted Qualls’ son to the school office, the lawsuit stated.

Qualls was waiting for her son in the parking lot when she saw him being escorted inside the building. The lawsuit alleged Assistant Principal Natasha Bice refused to allow Qualls inside her office as she talked to Qualls’ son.

Bice, according to the lawsuit, accused Qualls’ son of being the instigator and, the following day, punished him with two days of in-school suspension.

“The white student that verbally and physically assaulted (Qualls’ son) and used racial epithets not once, but twice, received no punishment,” the lawsuit stated.

More racially-motivated attacks against Qualls’ son followed in the following months, according to the lawsuit.

hawkins county school racism lawsuit

‘Monkey Island’

“On March 1, 2022, a drawing depicting an image of a KKK member holding a torch and noose, standing over ‘Monkey Island,’ was passed around the school cafeteria,” the lawsuit stated. “A white student handed the drawing to (Qualls’ son) as several of his white peers were laughing and mocking the drawing as though they found it humorous.”

When Qualls’ son informed his mother of that incident, she “immediately sent an email to Principal Scott Jones, reporting the drawing and expressing concern about the incident and its impact on her son,” the lawsuit stated.

In a meeting with Jones and Bice the following day, “Bice apologized to (Qualls’ son), simply stating that it should never have happened,” but, according to the lawsuit neither she nor Jones took any action against the white students.

Less than a week later, Qualls’ son was again verbally attacked while inside a restroom at the school.

“Five white students entered the boys’ restroom and confronted (Qualls’ son),” the lawsuit stated. “One of the students used his cell phone to videotape this encounter, while another student chased (Qualls’ son) out of the restroom holding a stuffed monkey.”

According to the lawsuit, one of the white students involved posted the video on Snapchat with the caption, “monkey chasing monkey,” and shared it with other students in Qualls’ son’s class. Qualls reported that incident to Hixson three days later.

“Director Hixson told Ms. Qualls that school administrators were made aware of the incident and that a full investigation was underway,” the lawsuit stated. “(The school system) delayed its investigation, however, and did not interview the male student responsible for this racial taunting until several weeks later.”

The lawsuit does not detail what, if anything, the school system did after interviewing the white student. Meanwhile, the verbal attacks on Qualls’ son continued, according to the litigation.

“On March 14, 2022, while walking the hallways at Church Hill Middle School, a white male student … began promoting what he referred to as the ‘Monkey of the Month Campaign,’” the lawsuit stated. “According to this school-wide campaign, the student ‘who acted the most n*****’ would be elected ‘Monkey of the Month.’

“On March 15, 2022, while (Qualls’ son) was in the boys’ Restroom, this same student … entered the restroom and in front of other students began acting a role out loud as a slave auctioneer and pretended to be selling (Qualls’ son) to the highest bidder,” the lawsuit continued.

‘Picking my shirt’

Qualls again notified Hixson, the school system director, according to the lawsuit.

At a follow-up meeting with Hixson, Jones, Bice and School Administrator Thomas Floyd, Hixson told Qualls “the school administration was ‘not going to focus on past incidents but work hard to make sure they didn’t have any more racially-motivated incidents’,” the lawsuit stated.

It was then, according to the lawsuit, that Hixson blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for students’ “racial hatred.”

Qualls would go on to report at least three more racially-motivated incidents at the school.

One involved a white student who “published a video” to social media depicting “the back of his hand, where he had written in black ink the words ‘n*****, n*****’ and a caption stating that he wrote it while taking a (expletive).”

A screen shot from that video, which was circulated among students at the school, also is included in the lawsuit.

The second incident, again recorded and posted on social media, involved three white students holding “inflated blue vinyl gloves with caricatures drawn on them of the heads of African-Americans,” the lawsuit stated.

“The heads were mockingly assigned African-American sound names, ‘Shaundale, Quandale and Quandale Jr.,” the lawsuit stated. “The students who made these artifacts posted Instagram videos of them with someone shooting and stabbing the gloves while speaking in ‘Ebonics’ or what might be termed a blend of racial sounding phonics.”

A screen shot from that video was, likewise, included in the lawsuit as proof.

In the third incident reported by Qualls, “a white student approached (her son) at school and gave him a clothing tag from his shirt which read ‘100 percent cotton,’” the lawsuit stated. “The student then stated to (Qualls’ son), ‘Thanks for picking my shirt this morning, n*****.’”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.