Settlement agreement details efforts of Lawrence schools to keep racism investigation out of public eye; teacher denies wrongdoing

South Middle School

Lawrence school district officials entered into a settlement agreement with the teacher accused of making racist comments to a South Middle School class, agreeing to withhold information about the district’s investigation in exchange for a promise that the district would not be sued.

District officials released a copy of the settlement agreement Thursday after the Journal-World filed a Kansas Open Records request seeking the document. The agreement identified the teacher as Chris Cobb, a longtime social studies teacher at South who had become the subject of much public speculation since the investigation was announced in October.

Until Thursday’s release of the document, the district had refused to identify the teacher, and Cobb also had declined to make any public comments. Following the release, Cobb issued a written statement saying he was unjustly accused by a source having a “well documented history of falsehoods.” He said he “reluctantly resigned” his position of 17 years with the district.

“My decision to accept the District’s offer was based, in part, on my concern that, in light of the fact that in today’s environment where perception is reality and political correctness trumps the truth, my continued presence in the classroom would only serve to inflame the intended divisions caused by my detractors,” Cobb said. “This, of course, would have imposed further distraction to the students’ learning environment to which I have devoted my career and about which I care deeply.”

Thursday’s new information answers some questions but leaves a central one unanswered: Neither the district nor Cobb would comment on the specific findings of the investigation. Instead, the settlement agreement sheds more light on the efforts of the district and Cobb to keep the investigation out of the public’s eye. Among the details of the agreement — which was titled a “resignation summary” and was signed by Cobb and Supt. Kyle Hayden — are:

• While placed on administrative leave, Cobb will receive full pay and benefits for the remainder of the school year.

• There will be no reference to the investigation in his personnel file, and the district will not refer any of the information related to the investigation to the Kansas State Board of Education.

• If prospective employers call the district to inquire about Cobb’s time with the district, the district will not reveal the investigation and only will respond that “he voluntarily resigned.”

• The agreement spelled out the specific motion that the Board of Education would make to accept Cobb’s resignation. It was specified that motion would include no mention of Cobb’s name. That was a stark departure from the board’s practice. It has accepted, by name, more than 300 resignations since January. The Journal-World contended the school board violated the Kansas Open Meetings Act by making a motion to accept a resignation without naming the person who was resigning.

• The agreement provided assurances that the school board “or anyone speaking on behalf of the district” would not mention Cobb’s name in connection with the resignation or investigation. School board members did not ever release Cobb’s name, and also did not specifically inform the public that the district had entered into a settlement agreement about the matter.

• Cobb agreed to release the district from all liabilities relating to the events leading to his resignation.

Hayden on Thursday declined to go into specifics about why the district agreed to enter into such a settlement with Cobb.

Also unclear is what Cobb was alleged to have said to his students. The Journal-World interviewed multiple parents who have children in Cobb’s class. Four parents interviewed by the Journal-World said their children had experienced confusion and discomfort when Cobb allegedly began discussing income disparities between black women and their white counterparts. Another allegation to emerge from the incident includes accounts that Cobb attempted to explain the scientific reasons behind skin color.

The Journal-World, however, was not able to determine through the interviews what Cobb’s intentions were behind the alleged remarks, as well as the context in which his alleged comments were made. The district, after releasing Cobb’s resignation summary, further declined to divulge any findings from the investigation into his alleged remarks.

The Journal-World also talked to another South parent who said her children previously had been taught by Cobb and had not reported hearing such talk from the teacher.

The district’s handling of the case has drawn criticism from community members since the launch of the investigation into the alleged remarks in October, with some, including leaders with the Lawrence NAACP chapter, voicing concerns about a perceived lack of transparency in the matter.

One parent interviewed by the Journal-World alleged that her daughter had been pulled out of class, without her mother’s notification or permission, on four separate occasions to answer questions about the alleged incidents. Another parent said that she had been notified by school administration when her daughter was interviewed.

In a meeting Thursday with the Journal-World, David Cunningham, the district’s executive director of human resources and legal counsel, explained that students are regularly taken out of class to speak with administrators, usually for routine discipline matters. It varies case by case, he said, but, typically, parents aren’t involved in the process, and any decision to notify parents is made by building administrators.

“Some of the initial interviews were without notification,” Cunningham said, referring to the South incident. “As we moved in through the investigation, however, there were other situations where we felt like the nature of the questioning or the depth of the questioning did suggest that we contact parents, and we did.”

Additional supports, including counselors and social workers, were assigned to the school during and after the investigation, Hayden said. Throughout the upheaval, he maintained, “the well-being of our students and staff” has been the district’s primary concern.

“We’re going to do our very best to provide a teaching and learning environment that is going to best serve our students. And if and when situations come up that require us to call into question whether the well-being of students is being served, we’re going to stop and investigate those situations, which we did in this particular case,” Hayden said. “Obviously, as the investigation drew to a close, it ended in a resignation of an employee.”

“Moving forward, I believe the district and staff at this point in time are increasingly mindful of the fact that we need to provide a safe learning environment for our students,” he added. “There’s an extraordinary commitment toward that effort now that has always existed but that we’re going to strive to improve.”