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Covington Diocese, teacher sued over treatment of Black student

The eighth grader—the only Black student in her class—was allegedly targeted by a teacher after taking offense to the use of a racial slur during a lesson.

St. Joseph Catholic School in Cold Spring, Kentucky, and teacher Clydenna Hehman, two of the defendants in a new lawsuit alleging racist treatment of a young Black student.

St. Joseph Catholic School in Cold Spring, Kentucky, is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed last month by the family of a disabled Black teenager who alleges months of racial discrimination, including a teacher’s use of the n-word and refusal to offer the child Communion during Mass.

The civil lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Kentucky on October 30. This came some six months after the student, identified as Jane Doe, heard the teacher use the racial slur in the classroom during a lesson that was allegedly unapproved by supervisors at the K-8 institution.

The Diocese of Covington, St. Joseph Catholic Church, and the accused teacher—ClyDenna Hehman—are named as defendants, as well as school administrator Msgr Gerald Reinersman. (The priest was previously cleared of a child sex abuse claim in 2005).

“On or about March 29, 2023, JANE and her mother CB reported to SJCC administration and Reinersman that a student called JANE a ‘n****r’ after JANE refused to share her answers to an assignment with the student in class,” the 21-page lawsuit reads.

“The very next month, on or about April 17, 2023, JANE was again singled out and harassed because of her race, but this time the perpetrator was Hehman, JANE’s eighth-grade English teacher.”

In the filing, the family further alleges that Hehman had been previously accused of “unprofessional behavior” in a school setting and that she targeted her class’s lone African-American student in ways that exploited her disability. According to her LinkedIn profile, Hehman was previously an assistant principal at St. Joseph.

Other students reportedly confronted the teacher for her use of the racial slur, which alongside other actions from Hehman have allegedly led to mental health episodes for the young Black student. An unnamed classmate submitted a statement to the court confirming that Hehman did in fact use the n-word in her class.

In response to the student’s complaints following the incident, including to other teachers at the school, Hehman allegedly began retaliating by gaslighting the student and telling her to “drop the whole thing.” according to an interview with her mother for the Daily Beast.

Hehman is said to have later refused to offer the student communion during a school Mass, which her mother called “traumatizing.”

The Diocese of Covington says the school conducted an investigation and found no wrongdoing on the part of Hehman, who they say was simply teaching a lesson about the history of discrimination. A source told the Northern Kentucky Tribune that Hehman is no longer employed at St. Joseph in Cold Spring but now teaches at St. Joseph Catholic School in Crescent Springs, also in the Diocese of Covington.

“While the teacher did give specific examples of racial slurs in the classroom,” the diocese said, “it was to teach the students not to use racial slurs and to teach about the evils of racism.”

The student’s family says the diocese, school, and Reinersman have colluded to deny her a safe learning environment and violated both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, among other infractions—entitling the family to monetary relief.

"This is the story of a brave, Black girl standing her ground against the biggest bully at her school, her teacher," the lawsuit reads.

“[The student] has suffered anguish, humiliation, distress, inconvenience, and loss of enjoyment of life because of [the] defendants’ actions.”

No stranger to such controversies, the Diocese of Covington previously faced criticism for its handling of a similar scandal in 2019, when Covington Catholic High student Nick Sandmann was recorded in an allegedly racist confrontation with Native American activist Nathan Phillips. The diocese later released a report claiming that the students engaged in no wrongdoing and were unfairly targeted by the media.

In the case filed by Jane Doe this fall, the diocese has retained a team of lawyers from the firm Dressman Benzinger LaVelle psc, which is also representing St. Joseph Church, Hehman, and Reinersman.

Though the diocese has denied wrongdoing on the part of Hehman, Bishop John Iffert released a statement on October 30 calling racism “a moral evil.”

“The Catholic Church and the Diocese of Covington work to oppose and root out racism wherever we encounter this radical evil, especially in our Christian minds and hearts.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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