Father of Jurnee Hoffmeyer files $1 million lawsuit against school district in hair cutting incident
Updated: 09/16/2020 at 4:00 p.m.
The father of a 7-year-old Michigan girl whose hair was cut by a teacher without her parents' permission has filed a $1 million lawsuit against the school district, a librarian and a teacher's assistant.
MLive.com reports that the lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court in Grand Rapids against Mount Pleasant Public Schools.
It alleges that the biracial girl's constitutional rights were violated, racial discrimination, ethnic intimidation, intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery. Jimmy Hoffmeyer, who is Black and white, said in March that a classmate used scissors to cut one side of his daughter's hair.
He said two days later a teacher cut Jurnee's hair to even it out. Hoffmeyer says the classmate and the teacher are white. Jurnee's mother is white.
The school district where a staff member cut the curly hair of a biracial 7-year-old student this spring said Friday that an “independent, third-party investigation” found “no evidence the incident was motivated by racial bias.”
Jurnee Hoffmeyer arrived home from Ganiard Elementary in Mount Pleasant with hair missing just before spring break, her father, Jimmy, said in April.
Now, the Mount Pleasant Public Schools board said it’s seen the results of both an internal and an external investigation.
The employee who cut Hoffmeyer’s hair acted with “good intentions,” as did two other district employees who were aware of the haircut but did not alert Hoffmeyer’s parents or the school district, the board said in a statement emailed Friday.
Nonetheless, their actions were unacceptable and showed “a major lack of judgement,” the district said.
Christina Laster, an advocate for the Hoffmeyer family and the policy and legislation director for the National Parents Union, said the employees’ intent shouldn’t matter.
“People can still act on racial bias even with the best intentions,” Laster said. “Hair like Jurnee’s is too often viewed as a problem to be solved.”
The school board said the staff member who cut Hoffmeyer’s hair will be placed on a “last chance” agreement, meaning that any future violations “will likely result in termination.”
“We believe a last-chance agreement is appropriate given that the employee has an outstanding record of conduct and has never once been reprimanded in more than 20 years of work” at Mount Pleasant Public Schools, the board said. The district did not specify how long the agreement would last.
The two employees who knew about the haircut but did not report it will have “written reprimands” placed in their files, the board said.
“As your Board, we have made every effort to address this matter with the seriousness and care it deserves and with the transparency our community expects,” the board said.
But the district did not say who performed the independent investigation, and Laster said neither Jurnee nor her parents had been contacted by independent investigators.
“I spoke with the Hoffmeyer family today, as the statement came out,” said Laster. “I can assure you that the independent, third-party investigation was conducted without the perspective or conversation of the family who was harmed.”
Laster said failing to speak with the Hoffmeyer family means investigators have an incomplete picture of what motivated the haircut and how it affected Jurnee. And she said not identifying racial bias as a factor that contributed to the haircut means the district is missing chances to stamp out racism.
“I see this type of stuff manifest all across this nation, and if we’re really, truly looking to end and eradicate systemic racism, people are going to have to do the hard, introspective work of challenging their own thoughts and beliefs,” Laster said.
The district did not immediately respond to phone calls or emails asking who conducted the investigation and whether they contacted the Hoffmeyer family.
Mount Pleasant Public Schools’ full statement is below:
At Mt. Pleasant Public Schools, we strive each day to ensure our students can learn and achieve in an inclusive, safe environment free from harassment, discrimination, bigotry or intolerance.
As your Board of Education, we are committed to ensuring our schools are safe and welcoming for all our students.
We truly appreciate the support and patience by our students, staff and families while an independent, third-party investigation was conducted regarding an incident at Ganiard Elementary School.
As your Board, we have made every effort to address this matter with the seriousness and care it deserves and with the transparency our community expects.
The third-party independent investigation included interviews with and feedback from district personnel, students, families as well as a review of video and photographic evidence including social media posts.
In the spirit of transparency, we are presenting the key findings from this investigation and resulting discipline as recommended by Superintendent Jennifer Verleger with support from the school board.
The key findings of the third-party investigation are:
- On March 26, an elementary student’s hair was cut by a MPPS employee without parent knowledge and without the knowledge of district administrators.
- Cutting a student’s hair on school grounds either with or without parent permission is a clear violation of school policy.
- There is no evidence the incident was motivated by racial bias.
The third-party investigation is in addition to a thorough internal review conducted by district administration, including conducting interviews, reviewing videotaped and photographic evidence, consistent with the laws and district policies and procedures.
The key takeaways in both reviews are consistent.
As a result of the district’s investigation, the employee who cut the student’s hair will be placed on a “last chance” agreement during which time any future violations will likely result in termination.
We believe a last chance agreement is appropriate given that the employee has an outstanding record of conduct and has never once been reprimanded in more than 20 years of work at MPPS.
In addition, Superintendent Verleger has recommended and the Board has accepted written reprimands for two additional MPPS employees who were aware of the incident but did not alert the student’s parents or the Administration.
These written reprimands will go into the employees’ respective files.
As a result of the incident and the third-party investigation, our school policies have been clarified to help ensure incidents like this do not happen again.
Professional development will also be a key part of learning from this experience and improving as a district.
It's clear from the third-party investigation and the district’s own internal investigation that MPPS employees had good intentions when performing the haircut.
Regardless, their decisions and actions are unacceptable and show a major lack of judgement.
The employees involved have acknowledged their wrong actions and apologized.
Superintendent Verleger has also personally apologized to the family on behalf of the school district.
Our main purpose with the independent investigation has been to bring the facts to light, learn from this incident and make our district even stronger.
To achieve our mission of providing a world-class education to all MPPS students, we must continuously strive to improve and acknowledge when we have not lived up to our own high standards.
With the investigation concluded, we can now move forward together as one MPPS family and community dedicated to helping all students achieve and succeed.