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Michelle Obama's brother, his wife sue Milwaukee private school, alleging racial bias

Craig and Kelly Robinson said the University School of Milwaukee retaliated against them by unfairly expelling their two sons.

Michelle Obama's brother and sister-in-law sued their children's former private school in Milwaukee, alleging that the two boys were unfairly kicked out after they raised concerns about racial bias.

Craig and Kelly Robinson enrolled their sons, who were 11 and 9, at the University School of Milwaukee, or USM, in 2016. School officials expelled them last year, claiming in letters that the Robinsons "had violated the School’s Common Trust and had not fulfilled their commitments as partners with USM,” according to a lawsuit filed Monday in a Milwaukee County circuit court.

Craig Robinson and his wife Kelly Robinson arrive at a state dinner in Washington on Aug. 2, 2016.
Craig Robinson and his wife, Kelly Robinson, arrive at a state dinner in Washington on Aug. 2, 2016.Yuri Gripas / AFP via Getty Images file

But the Robinsons say the school retaliated against them because they verbally complained and filed bias incident reports about offensive classwork and assignments, the lawsuit states.

“It just seems to be unfair that they retaliated against a 9- and 11-year-old for something we brought up to help the school,” Craig Robinson told NBC affiliate WTMJ of Milwaukee.

The couple said they chose USM because it ranked as the best school in the region and marketed itself as valuing diversity. However, in November 2020, they told faculty and staff members that some of the language in various worksheets and projects "was offensive to persons of color, persons with disabilities, indigenous Americans, and other underrepresented students," the suit says.

In January 2021, Kelly Robinson submitted a bias incident report through the school’s Bias Incident Reporting System about classwork that included "harmful content toward underrepresented students," according to the lawsuit. She filed a second report in March 2021 about "similarly concerning language" in a separate assignment.

The lawsuit says the school acknowledged that it received the report but took no further action.

The Robinsons say they were shocked when they received a letter in April 2021 informing them their 11-year-old son had been denied re-enrollment, according to the lawsuit. In June, they received a second letter telling them their 9-year-old had also been removed.

In both letters, which were obtained by NBC News, Steven Hancock, the head of school, accused the Robinsons of failing to fulfill "the foregoing commitments as partners with USM" and engaging in "disrespectful" conversations about staff members and teachers.

Hancock ended the letters by asking the Robinsons to find other schools for their children.

"While a part of this broader pattern of wrongful conduct, the School’s treatment of the Robinson children was targeted directly at them, notwithstanding their model behavior, and therefore was particularly egregious and harmful," the lawsuit says. "Defendant’s unprecedented and Draconian action to remove two minor children of color from their school at impressionable ages, was traumatizing."

The school, which charges about $30,000 a year for tuition, said in a statement to the school community that it could not comment on specific matters related to the lawsuit, but it denied that the children were removed because of the parents' complaints.

"We cannot and will not tolerate persistently disrespectful, bullying, or harassing behavior directed at our devoted and hardworking teachers and administrators," Hancock said in the statement. "Such conduct that makes faculty feel unsafe not only violates our Common Trust pledge and Parent-School Partnership, but also interferes with USM’s operations and precludes a positive and constructive working relationship between the school and the families we proudly serve. When such parental conduct threatens the educational environment we have created, we have no choice but to take action."

Hancock went on to say the school takes "great pride in the supportive and inclusive community we intentionally strive to create."

"For that reason, we embrace diversity in all of its forms," Hancock said.

The lawsuit further alleges that the school failed to discipline white students who "used racial slurs, acted in a racist manner toward students of color, or who threatened students of color based upon their race."

It also alleges another incident that it says took place before the boys enrolled. According to the lawsuit, fourth grade students were forced to participate in an Underground Railroad simulation, in which students of color were told to act like runaway slaves as staff members pretended to be slave catchers.

The students would then navigate through dark hallways and classrooms while staff members "played sounds evoking whips, chains, and horses galloping," according to the lawsuit. If the students did not participate, they faced either receiving a low grade or failing to pass the fourth grade, the suit alleges.

The school continued doing the simulation into the 2010s and stopped only after multiple students of color and USM parents complained, the lawsuit states.