Michelle Obama’s brother and wife sue Milwaukee University School

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Michelle Obama’s brother and his wife, Craig and Kelly Robinson, have filed a lawsuit alleging racial bias at the University School of Milwaukee, the private school their children attend.

Breaking the news on Good Morning America on Tuesday, the Robinsons said their two sons were expelled from school last year after parents raised concerns about bias in the curriculum and mistreatment of students of color.

“It’s been heartbreaking to watch them deal with this,” Kelly Robinson said of her sons in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY Network.

USM Principal Steve Hancock defended the school in a letter to families on Tuesday, although a school spokesperson did not respond to questions from the Journal Sentinel. In the letter, Hancock said the students’ rejection was not because the parents expressed concerns, but because the parents violated school policies in the way they communicated.

The Robinsons said they were seeking financial compensation from the school, which charges about $30,000 a year for tuition. The Robinsons are committed to donating any monetary awards to initiatives for diversity, equity and inclusion in the schools.

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The family moved to the Milwaukee area in 2016 when Craig was hired to work for the Milwaukee Bucks. They said they chose to enroll their children in kindergarten and first grade at USM because it was ranked as the best school in the area and marketed itself as valuing diversity.

The Robinsons said they started noticing problems in the program during the pandemic as they helped their children get virtual schooling.

“It allowed us to look into the classroom and what we saw was repeated use of racial and ethnic stereotyping in actual schoolwork,” Craig Robinson said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel.

In November 2020, they said, they raised their concerns with USM staff, noting offensive worksheets and projects for people of color, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and other students under -represented.

At first, the Robinsons said school administrators were interested in working with them to improve the program. They had a series of calls discussing ideas, and Kelly said at one point Hancock told her she should get paid for all the work she did.

In January and March 2021, Kelly said, she submitted two bias reports through the school’s reporting system regarding classroom work that had “socio-economic insensitivities.” At this point, Kelly said Hancock disagreed and the dynamic had changed.

The Robinsons declined to share specific issues with the material, saying the main issue was how the school was addressing their concerns and excluding their children.

In an April email to Kelly included in the lawsuit, Hancock told her she had failed to follow the school’s expectations of parents, engaging in “disrespectful and deflating” communications. In the same email, Hancock asked her to find another school for one of her sons.

In June, Hancock said the school would not allow any of the Robinson children to return for the 2021-22 school year, according to another email included with the suit. He again blamed Kelly’s communications for the school’s decision, calling the children “students who fit the picture of a USM graduate.”

Craig Robinson and his wife Kelly Robinson arrive for a State Dinner for Singapore Lee Hsien Loong, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016, at the White House in Washington.  Craig Robinson is the brother of First Lady Michelle Obama.

As other families learned of what happened, the Robinsons said they heard a flood of stories of other embarrassing experiences, including a lack of repercussions for racial epithets and other discrimination against students at color. Some of these stories were shared on the “Black at USM” Instagram account.

Another parent, Cynthia McPhedran, said she had been just as persistent as the Robinsons about the issues their family had with bias in the classrooms, as well as the issues of students doing virtual learning while others were in person.

When McPhedran learned that the Robinsons had been deported, she decided to remove her children as well.

Among the problems McPhedran noticed at school: a teacher dressing up as a sumo wrestler; a teacher asking students to debate whether they would rather be a Pilgrim or a Native American; and a lack of accommodation for virtual students.

McPhedran said she, along with the Robinsons and other families, raised concerns in an effort to be helpful and improve the school. After the actions against the Robinsons, she said the families were afraid to raise issues.

The Robinsons call on USM to take several steps: diversify the school board’s administration and faculty; organize racial sensitivity training for staff and students; and expand dedicated efforts to support students from underrepresented groups. Their call to action has been signed by dozens of current and former students and parents.

Follow Rory Linnane on Twitter: @RoryLinnane.

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