After new allegations, Wausau schools to launch investigation of band director accused of racial slurs

A group of students cast new light on allegations, but comments at school board meeting raise new concerns

Wausau School District
Wausau School District. Rob Mentzer/WPR

The Wausau School Board will hire an outside attorney to investigate claims that a band teacher used racial slurs in class.

The announcement Tuesday afternoon comes after dozens of speakers at a Monday evening school board meeting called on the board to rescind the district’s decision to return the teacher to class. And it comes as some students and community members say the way the controversy has played out in public has failed to account for the truth of the case.

Wausau East High School band director Rob Perkins was briefly on leave while the district investigated allegations by a student that he had used anti-Asian slurs and had targeted the student’s sexual orientation. The district reinstated Perkins and, in a finding shared with the accuser’s parents, said it found he had engaged in “insensitive and unprofessional conduct” but not “harassing or discriminatory” behavior.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

That response angered the student’s parents, who spoke out in local media. Their concerns were amplified by Asian American leaders, who released a letter and online petition calling for further action by the district, including firing Perkins.

At Monday’s school board meeting, public comment lasted nearly 90 minutes and included statements from former students who alleged other incidents of racism and inappropriate behavior. Community and state leaders also spoke or had delegates read comments at the meeting. The overwhelming majority of the comments were that Wausau has failed to protect Asian American students.

The district’s decision “sends a clear message that our Asian American children have no value or priority by the Wausau School District,” said Mary Thao, a former school board member who signed a letter critical of the district’s decision not to fire Perkins. “Showing prejudice against marginalized groups is systematically part of your Wausau School District DNA.

The state Department of Public Instruction, which issues teaching licenses, has opened its own investigation into the allegations. And in a new statement Tuesday, the Wausau School Board said it would hire a “third-party, independent attorney to review a recent investigation into one of the district’s employees and to look into new allegations that have come forward.”

Many students and parents who support the band director were unable to attend the school board meeting because it fell on the same evening as the Wausau East band’s spring concert.

Some members of the high school band have cast doubt on the accusations made publicly. A recent Instagram post by a group of students puts some of the accusations in a different light. The students wished to remain anonymous, but Wisconsin Public Radio verified with multiple students’ parents that the post was authentic.

The students said Perkins used the word “ching” and a similar term as an onomatopoeia for a cymbal’s crash rather than as a slur. They wrote that Perkins apologized after one student reported being uncomfortable with the use of the word, and said Perkins did not use it again.

Mike Klemp-North has two kids who are part of the school’s band, as well as a middle-school student who has participated in a Wausau East band program. Klemp-North also traveled with the band when it was part of a Wisconsin entry into the Rose Parade.

Klemp-North confirmed the Instagram post’s statement that the band includes trans and nonbinary students, as well as those who need accommodations due to disabilities.

“They felt very hurt that their safe place, where their (differences) have never been ridiculed or teased about, was taken away,” Klemp-North said. “And the whole community was in shock.”

The district had previously announced plans to hire a consultant to “to better understand and improve the experiences our students and staff are having in our schools.”