Blake (right), with his dad, says his Edgewood teachers were great. But school was tiring: 'As soon as I'd step in the door I knew something would happen. I'd spend my whole day on the defensive.'
By the time Blake Broadnax withdrew from Edgewood High School midway through his junior year, his grade point average had dropped to 2.8. Now a senior at a public high school in Indianapolis, Blake's GPA is back up to 3.6 and he is sorting through his college acceptance letters.
"Getting out of the negative environment has really paid off for him," says attorney Stan Davis, who represents Blake and his parents in a dispute with Edgewood High School.
Blake, who is African American, alleges that he was subject to racial harassment from the time he entered the private Catholic high school in 2011 until his abrupt departure just over two years later. There was the time, in his freshman year, when a teacher asked for a volunteer to run an errand. A student responded that Blake should do it because he was "the slave."
Blake also recalls the time a student who was supposed to be critiquing a speech he wrote, wrote "nigger" all over his paper. He says another classmate once referred to him as "my little nigglet" and that his teammates on the basketball team would freely throw around the "N-word" despite his protests.
Blake began struggling emotionally, and his grades suffered. By December 2013, he and his parents felt he could no longer continue at Edgewood. He enrolled in a private online school until May, when he moved with his mom to Indianapolis. The family was unable to immediately sell their house, so Blake's dad, Keith, stayed on in Madison and commuted between the two cities for about a year.
Davis, a former legal counsel to Gov. Jim Doyle who is now in private practice, says he asked Edgewood in February 2014 to refund Blake's tuition back to 2011 and for reasonable compensation for what Blake and his family went through. Davis says he turned down Edgewood's counteroffer to forgive the tuition the family owed for the spring semester that Blake did not attend school there.
Now Davis is preparing to file a civil complaint in Dane County Circuit Court against the school and, potentially, some individual administrators there.
Davis says what Blake experienced at Edgewood violated his civil rights. However, because Edgewood is a private institution that does not receive federal dollars, the school may be immune from civil rights laws.
But, adds Davis, "What Edgewood cannot escape is tort law and its contractual obligations. We expect to hold Edgewood legally accountable for breaching their contractual agreement with Blake and his family."
Davis charges that Edgewood failed to provide a safe environment for Blake and to follow its internal rules and guidelines, all of which "contributed greatly to the damages suffered by Blake." Davis says that the high school's rules prohibit discrimination, but that it was allowed to persist.
Michael Elliott, president of Edgewood High School, says he is not aware of Davis' plans, but offers that he is "proud of the efforts and the amount of time and money" that his school puts into diversity issues. "I have no idea where Stan is coming from because I know [diversity] is built into every year's lessons plans and education plans for faculty and staff."
Elliott says he can't comment on the allegations raised by Blake or whether the high school made any offer for tuition forgiveness.
"It's a policy for the protection of the kids that we don't make any comments on any ongoing situation with a specific student."
Gwen Jones considers herself part of the Edgewood High School community. "Once you're in, you're in," says Jones, a founding member of the Dane County branch of the NAACP.
Jones and her husband chose Edgewood for their son after he finished elementary school at St. James Catholic School. The family was living in Pleasant Springs at the time.
"We knew Stoughton wasn't going to be an option for us because of the lack of diversity," says Jones.
Jones did consider going out of district, but was discouraged by the achievement gap between white and African American students in Madison's public schools. Jones felt Edgewood would prepare her son academically for the future. "We wanted to give him the best options," she says.
Jones says her son, now 28, went on to college and is doing well. But recently, after learning about Blake Broadnax's experience, she questioned her son about his time at the school.
He told her he had witnessed similar racial incidents, but didn't feel the need to tell her or his dad.
"I would have been extremely engaged if he had brought that conversation forward," says Jones.
Since learning of the allegations, though, she and other local African American leaders, including Kaleem Caire, the former head of the Urban League of Greater Madison, and the Rev. Alex Gee have reached out to Edgewood officials and have been meeting about once a month. Jones says they have discussed the school's protocols for dealing with reported racial incidents and how to increase diversity at the school.
Elliott, who has been meeting with the group along with David Stein, Edgewood's board chair, says the school is committed to serving more students of color.
"We certainly would like our diversity numbers to increase, and if there are ways we can do that we want to be meeting with the people who can help us meet our goals and achieve our mission," he says.
"We are looking for ways to be a stronger community together," adds Elliott. "I think we're going to accomplish some exciting things together."
Jones says what happens at Edgewood has important implications.
"We have a lot of kids in the black community who have a lot of potential," she says. "If that potential is not being met by the public schools, we need to have another place to turn to. And for years that other place has been Edgewood High School."
Keith and Rena Broadnax, like Jones and her husband, chose Edgewood High School for their son so that he could be challenged academically. They did not see that happening in the suburban public school district near Madison he attended up to eighth grade.
"We weren't happy," says Keith. "As an African American, there weren't any expectations of him. He was doing so much better than the other African American kids, and they weren't pushing him."
The Broadnax family had moved to the Madison area from Lansing, Mich., excited about a career opportunity for Keith, and the city's vaunted quality of life.
Keith, a vice president with the Great Lakes Capital Fund, a nonprofit community development finance organization, says opening his company's Wisconsin office a few years ago was a "huge opportunity." He adds, "What you hear is that Madison is a great town."
Keith has now moved to Indianapolis to be with his family. Leaving Madison meant he also had to resign his spot on the Dane County Housing Authority, where he was the only African American commissioner.
In his resignation letter to Judy Wilcox, chair of the authority, Keith shared that he had to leave Madison to get his son "in a better environment, so that he could have a somewhat normal senior year." He also expressed deep regret about leaving the housing authority.
"I still remember the struggles that my mother went through to raise my brothers and me, and how that made me feel," he wrote. "I've dedicated my career to providing families and communities with the opportunities that I didn't have growing up by providing decent, safe, affordable housing. I loved being a commissioner because it provided me with an opportunity to take what I've learned over my career and give back by helping the housing authority accomplish its goals of providing affordable housing to Dane County residents."
Wilcox says the authority is "heartbroken" to lose Keith, who she says brought professional expertise and "heart" to the commission. "You've got to have some understanding not only of the people the housing authority serves, but also what it takes to be a property manager, and he had both of those things. Plus the knowledge of housing finance, which is even more important to us now that we are buying properties."
"He was a great commissioner," says Wilcox. "What a loss to the Dane County community."