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Wausau schools see backlash after teacher accused of anti-Asian slur is reinstated

Asian American leaders say district's response falls short of protecting students

Students walk through a hallway at Cadillac High School in Cadillac, Mich., on Wednesday, April 17, 2019
Students walk through a hallway at Cadillac High School in Cadillac, Mich., on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. Martha Irvine/AP Photo

The Wausau School District’s decision to reinstate a high school teacher accused of using racial slurs at school has sparked outrage among Asian American leaders across Wisconsin.

A high school senior and his family, who are Asian American, said Wausau East band director Rob Perkins used anti-Asian slurs. In statements to local media, they also allege that Perkins targeted the senior, who is gay, with homophobic remarks.

In a statement, the school district said it investigated the allegations and plans to work with a consultant “to better understand and improve the experiences our students and staff are having in our schools.” However, the district said it would not fire Perkins or remove him from his classroom.

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That has prompted a backlash from the student’s family and from the group of leaders, who released a letter blasting the district for “not follow(ing) their own policy of fostering a safe and supportive learning environment for students.”

Signing the letter were former Wausau School Board member Mary Thao; Hmong Chamber of Commerce director Maysee Herr; Wisconsin United Coalition of Mutual Assistance Association director Mang Xiong; Social Change X Project founder Sheng Elizabeth Lor; and Hmong American Center director and Marathon County Board member Yee Leng Xiong. The Hmong Chamber of Commerce is based in Milwaukee; the Social Change X Project in Eau Claire.

“Comments that attack students’ identity and their sense of selves should be a zero-tolerance issue, especially in a school setting,” the leaders wrote. “A person of influence and power should be expected to lead and guide children, not humiliate and dehumanize them.”

In a letter announcing the district’s findings released by the group, Wausau Superintendent Keith Hilts wrote that “while a preponderance of evidence shows that Mr. Perkins did not engage in harassing or discriminatory behavior, he did engage in insensitive and unprofessional conduct. Witnesses indicate that he did use language that could be insensitive to students of different protected classes including race and sex, but that language did not rise to the level of discrimination or harassment.”

The investigation found Perkins “uses humor to create a ‘fun’ environment.” While some students said they were uncomfortable with his humor at times, most did not view his humor as hurtful.

On Tuesday, the Wausau Daily Herald reported that Perkins had said two anti-Asian slurs, though it was not clear that he directed the words at particular students.

Perkins did not respond to a request for comment. The school district has declined to comment beyond statements released last week.

The student’s family has also said Perkins targeted their son’s sexuality, suggesting that he might want to wear a dress to prom. A family member did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WPR.

In a statement to media, Hilts said the district would not tolerate disrespectful behavior and would take action to reinforce expectations of respect. Hilts also responded indirectly to accusations that the district’s response was too lenient.

“When we reject people who do not meet expectations, we foster division,” he said.

In an interview with the Wausau-based WSAW-TV, the student’s father, Twan Vongphakdy, said he wanted to see Perkins fired. Vongphakdy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In their letter, the group of Asian American leaders wrote that they “demand justice for all children impacted by (Perkins’) gross misconduct,” and called for students, teachers and community members “to stand up against all forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry.”