A Kentucky family has filed a lawsuit against a Catholic church and its junior high school for dismissing accusations that a white teacher allegedly singled out a Black student and subjected her to racial slurs in class.
After the student made complaints to administration, the teacher allegedly intensified the harassment and intimidation.
On Monday, a former 8th grader of St. Joseph’s School in Cold Spring and her mother filed a lawsuit against St. Joseph Catholic Church, the student’s English teacher at the church’s associate school, the Diocese of Covington, as well as an agent for the diocese who also served as an administrator at the school. According to the lawsuit, the student, who is only referenced as “Jane Doe,” was the only Black student in her 8th grade class.
During class on April 17, her English teacher, only referred to as “Hehman” in the lawsuit, asked students to raise their hands if they were Black, the complaint states. However, Hehman allegedly knew Jane was the only Black student. The following day, Hehman allegedly repeatedly used the N-word during a lesson.
“Hehman explained to the entire class that when she grew up her parents said the word all the time,” according to the lawsuit. “Hehman then explained to the students that nowadays you need to ‘be careful who you say N----- around because you will be ex’ed out of society.’”
Jane’s attorney, Jamir Davis, explained to The Daily Beast that the teacher didn’t say the word in a way to condemn it. Instead, he said Hehman’s context of the word was that people have to be careful who they say it around.
Students in the class allegedly came to Jane’s defense, the lawsuit states, and Jane complained to other faculty members and school administrators.
“Jane told her other teachers right after the class,” Davis said. “And because the school didn't do anything, that teacher went on to say those same remarks to other classes. She said it to her 8th grade class, the 7th grade class, and the 6th grade class. There were no other Black students in those classes.”
After the incident, the lawsuit claims Jane’s mother and other parents “pleaded” with St. Joseph’s Catholic Church to remove Hehman, but nothing happened.
The Northern Kentucky Tribune reports the teacher is ClyDenna Hehman, a former principal of the school, according to her LinkedIn page.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Jane’s mother said the teacher began to retaliate against her daughter during the remaining two months of school. According to the complaint, Hehman claimed Jane looked Hispanic and shouldn’t have been offended by the N-word, cornered Jane in an elevator and advised her to “drop the whole thing,” stared at her for lengthy periods of time, and denied Jane from taking communion when Hehman led mass one week.
“[Hehman] was the one distributing communion at church one day and my daughter had to be in her line,” Jane’s mother told The Daily Beast. “When you go up for communion, the person distributing would say something, and then the receiver would say, ‘Amen,’ and take it. She didn’t say anything to my daughter. My daughter was already frightened. [Jane] was scared because she knew she had to be in [Hehman’s] line and she didn't know what to do. [My daughter] said she sat there for a moment, and the teacher didn't do anything.”
Jane had to walk away empty-handed and embarrassed.
Overall, Jane’s mother has said the entire ordeal has been “traumatizing.”
“We’re still trying to heal,” she told The Daily Beast. “[My daughter] definitely sees the world through a different lens, which is unfortunate but valid with what she's went through. It's made transitioning to high school more difficult as she's trying to learn her place. In high school, they expect you to communicate your needs and assistance with teachers, and [Jane’s] uncomfortable and fearful doing so. So, that’s been a struggle. Definitely something we're still healing from.”
According to the lawsuit, St. Joseph’s administration and the Diocese of Covington “have both failed to take any action against any of the individuals involved and never offered any resources to help the family recover from these devastating incidents.”
However, racial harassment allegedly wasn’t a practice unique to the English teacher. Before the debacle with Hehman began, the lawsuit states Jane dealt with students calling her racial slurs when she wouldn’t allow them to copy her classwork. After the incident was reported, school administrators allegedly didn’t do anything to resolve that situation either.
“St. Joseph School did conduct a prompt and thorough investigation. It found no evidence of racial discrimination or racial harassment,” Diocese of Covington Communications Director Laura Keener said in a statement. “While the teacher did give specific examples of racial slurs in the classroom, it was to teach the students not to use racial slurs and to teach about the evils of racism.”
Hehman did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment in time of publishing.
“I have to stay as strong as I can in front of [my daughter] and for her. I don’t want her to be fearful. So, I have to hide my sadness and my anxiety, or my anger, or any of my emotional roller coasters with it because I want her to stay strong,” Jane’s mother told The Daily Beast.
“But I also tell her how proud I am with her strength and courage because it takes a lot of strength and courage to speak out and stand up against something like this. This is a life still she’ll take forever, and I hope that she grows from that and other people, maybe… learn from her giving her own voice.”