In January 2022 the Edwards family moved into the city of Bonham, driving past a Confederate statue in front of the Fannin County Courthouse, as they made their way to their new home.
Overlooking the city, one side of the statue’s inscription reads: “To the Confederate soldiers who sacrificed their lives for a just cause, this monument is lovingly dedicated.” The other says:
They fought for principle, their homes and those they loved. On Fame’s eternal camping ground, their silent tents are spread; And Glory guards with solemn sound the bivouac of the dead.
Only a few hours later, a police officer pulled over the car of the biracial couple—Sadie who is White, Kevin who is Black, and their kids in the back seat—allegedly for driving 37 mph in a 35 mph zone. The officer claimed he smelled marijuana and threatened to pull everyone out of the car.
“That was our first night coming to stay in the new home that we had just bought, and I had a moment of ‘Oh God, what did we do?” Sadie told the Texas Observer in a recent interview.
During his first week of school, other kids taunted the Edwards’ 12-year-old son Brilliant, telling him to “go back and pick cotton.” Over the next year, he faced a series of racially motivated attacks by students, school officials, and police officers, resulting in his unjustified arrests and removal from school at the age of 13 in December 2022, according to allegations in a new civil rights complaint.
Yesterday, attorneys with the advocacy organizations Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Disability Rights Texas, and the National Center for Youth Law filed a civil rights complaint with the federal Department of Justice on behalf of Brilliant and C.J., another Bonham ISD student who separately faced discrimination both as a Black student and as a student with disabilities.
The complaint alleges Bonham ISD perpetuated a racially hostile environment in the case of both students and a hostile educational environment on the basis of disability in C.J.’s case.
“Students of color deserve safe, supportive educational environments free from racial harassment and targeting by peers and school staff,” said Renuka Rege, policy advisor for Texas Appleseed’s Education Justice Project.
Unfortunately, BISD has created the opposite, pushing students of color out of school through pervasive racial slurs by peers and indifference from school staff, and persistent racial targeting by the SRO that results in disciplinary alternative school placement and arrest.
Bonham ISD officials have not responded to the Observer’s requests for comment. “The sad thing is, I’m saying the same prayer for my son that parents a hundred years ago were saying for theirs,” Sadie said.
I just want my child and other children to be treated equally. They shouldn’t have to walk through life feeling like they don’t belong.
“Cotton picker.” “Black monkey.” “N—.” Brilliant told the Observer that since he started sixth grade at Bonham ISD, Brilliant repeatedly complained to teachers and administrators about students who made racial slurs, but even when such offensive comments were made within the earshot of adults, he said he was told that he needed proof.
In a school district where only 6 percent of the students are Black, the complaint alleges that Brilliant was repeatedly targeted for racial harassment by other students, school officials, and city police officers. The complaint details several incidents.
In the Spring of 2022 when Brilliant was playing at the park beside the school, he noticed a pair of white boys fighting. A video obtained by the Observer, shows one white boy pummeling another on the ground. At one point, the unnamed white boy releases the other and says,
Go get my goddamned gun.
According to the complaint, Brilliant understood this as a gun threat and called the city police. But when Bonham ISD police officer William Abbott arrived with another school resource officer and five city cops, “they simply waved at the White boys who were fighting, and instead approached [Brilliant], who was still on the phone with dispatch,” the complaint states. They searched Brilliant’s bag and asked if he had a gun. Brilliant told the Observer that only after Abbott and other officers interrogated him for about 30 minutes did they briefly question the boys who had been fighting.
When Sadie attempted to file a complaint with the police department, Mike Bankston, who was Bonham police chief at the time, told her that he lacked an internal affairs division to investigate the officers, including Abbott, who is still listed on the city’s website as a police detective. “I’ve been told over and over that Fannin County has its own laws, that they run things differently than other counties,” Sadie said.
Captain Terry Eddington told the Observer over the phone that Abbott retired several years ago and that there has always been an internal affairs division at the city police department. Bankston retired in March 2023.
Around the same month, Brilliant, then 12, made another complaint to Principal Karli Fowler at IW Evans Elementary School. Scared for his life, he told Fowler that the father of a white female friend had threatened to fight and shoot him. According to the civil rights complaint, his friend’s father, “called him the n-word, and yelled at him for hanging out with his daughter because he is Black.” Brilliant and Sadie told the Observer that they showed Fowler a Snapchat message the father sent to him through his daughter, calling him a “½ n—” and his mom a “n— lover.”
Brilliant got no response, but a few days later, he was called into the principal’s office. This time, he found Fowler waiting there with Officer Abbott. Sadie later found out the same friend’s father had called the school to complain that Brilliant sent his daughter an “inappropriate” video of a farmer twerking. For this, Brilliant received in-school suspension for five days and was told any other incident would land him in out-of-school suspension or the District Alternative Education Program (DAEP).
Sadie said to the Observer what she told the school officials:
When my son came to you a couple of days ago, fearing for his safety, you told him it was after school hours, so there was nothing you could do. But then when the white girl’s daddy calls about something that obviously happened after school hours, you are on board.
Brilliant’s experience in the Bonham school district would only get worse as he began seventh grade at LH Rather Junior High School, according to several other incidents described in the civil rights complaint. The document describes how Abbott followed Brilliant and other kids of color around at a football game in October 2022, forbidding them from leaving the bleachers. Abbott even pulled another kid of color out of the bathroom while he was using it.
Sadie said she confronted Abbott for targeting Black students while White kids were not surveilled. “I told Officer Abbott that he wanted to corral the Black kids, but then I asked the white kids there who I’d seen going up and down the bleachers all night, ‘Have you been told you had to remain in the bleachers?’ They said ‘No, ma’am,’” Sadie told the Observer. She was then told she could leave Bonham if she didn’t like it.
About a month later on December 5, 2022, Abbott handcuffed and arrested Brilliant and another Black student at school in front of other students. Abbott charged both 13-year-olds with indecent sexual contact of a minor, a felony, claiming the two boys had touched a white girl’s breasts back in September. According to the civil rights complaint, even though the police later dropped these charges, finding them to be untrue, Abbott’s actions forced Brilliant out of school. He has been in the district’s DAEP since December 9.
The complaint alleges that school officials handled complaints differently depending on the race of the student. Earlier that same year, a Black female friend of Brilliant’s was surrounded by four white boys who poked her and called her a “Black monkey.” The complaint states, “One of these male students is a BISD teacher’s son and the teacher defended her son’s action by saying ‘it was a joke’ and that ‘people are so sensitive.’” After the white boys’ parents complained, the students were not sent to DAEP, but instead received a few days of in-school suspension.
Brilliant told the Observer that late last year, another Black female friend had reported to school administrators that two white boys were taking photos of her in the school bathroom, but officials did nothing.
According to both Sadie and Brilliant, on December 15, Abbott came for Brilliant again, alleging Brilliant had committed aggravated assault of a minor when a 5-year-old student bumped his head against a bus seat while other students were horseplaying around him. This time, Brilliant spent two and a half weeks in juvenile detention. According to the complaint, Fannin County Judge Charles Butler ordered a psychiatric evaluation in 2023 claiming the teenager had “anger issues” based on an earlier incident when Brilliant responded to being repeatedly called “N—” by his girlfriend’s brother by holding the other boy against the lockers. Assistant Principal Amanda Poormohamadi had dismissed Brilliant’s complaints at the time, saying the brother “was only trying to protect his sister.”
Sadie told the Observer that while Brilliant sat in juvenile detention, a 14-year-old white student involved in the horseplaying on the bus was suspended for a few weeks and then returned to school, graduating from middle school on the honor roll.
For more than a year after that second arrest, Judge Butler has been pushing Brilliant to plead guilty in exchange for official permission to return to school.
He and his mother have refused, saying he’s innocent. “I told them all of you are very sick people to use Brilliant’s wanting to be a normal kid as a plea bargaining tool. There’s no way you know, he is going to plead guilty for something that he didn’t do,” Sadie said. The trial date has been postponed three times already and is now set for August 24, 2024.
“I just want to go back to school,” Brilliant said.
Civil rights attorneys argue in the complaint that Bonham ISD violated Brilliant’s rights under both the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits state actors from depriving individuals of their rights based on race and national origin and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against Black students, creating a racially hostile educational environment, subjecting Black students to severe and pervasive racial harassment.
The complaint alleges that another Bonham ISD student, C.J., was also unfairly singled out by law enforcement simply for being a young Black teenager. Both C.J. and his grandmother requested us not to use their names for fear of retribution by authorities. She revealed that when C.J. was 16 years old, he was asked by friends to film a fight between two white boys. In the aftermath, C.J. was the only one in the group charged with a felony. As a condition for his probation, he was required to graduate with a high school diploma.
He ended up attending DAEP where every day he spent nearly seven hours straight in front of an online learning program called Edgenuity. According to the complaint, there were only two instructors for grades six to 12; not enough for the students to have P.E. or to get assistance with different subjects. That was a problem for C.J. who is diagnosed with dyslexia and multiple mental health disorders, and needs medication that induces drowsiness. The complaint reveals that though he has requested counseling and special education services, the only accommodation he received from the district for his disabilities was permission to answer fewer questions on homework and tests.
The complaint alleges that the district’s failure to provide disability services later resulted in incarceration, rather than intervention and support.
In early October 2022, C.J. was suspended after teachers made him stand at his desk, saying he was making excuses for falling asleep. According to the complaint, “C.J. became frustrated and the school claimed he walked out of DAEP without permission.” The suspension resulted in a bond violation for which he was incarcerated for 18 days.
In March of 2023, C.J. received a truancy ticket for absences he had used to seek behavioral health treatment. According to the complaint, the district refused to honor his doctor’s notes and Bonham High School Principal showed up at C.J.’s truancy court hearing to tell Bonham Municipal Court Judge John Skotnik that C.J. would not graduate.
CJ, who was not appointed an attorney, was forced to drop out of BISD and enroll in a GED program, a ruling that violated C.J.’s original probation. Caught between dueling orders, C.J. was arrested and jailed on April 12, 2023, for probation violations. Two weeks later, Bonham ISD Superintendent Kelly Trompler “made C.J. beg” to come back to school,” the complaint states. Again, he was forced to agree to stringent rules, which did not provide accommodations or services for his disabilities. C.J. managed to graduate last summer, but since at age 17 he had been charged as an adult with probation violations, he remains incarcerated, waiting for his sentence and the opportunity to be released so his life can continue.
Civil rights attorneys argue that Bonham ISD also violated C.J.’s rights under Title II of the American Disabilities Act, which prohibits a public entity from discriminating against individuals with disabilities and prohibiting them from participating or receiving services, programs, or activities from the public entity.
“Our client with disabilities was entitled to reasonable accommodations, but he was incarcerated three times in 12 months due to the school’s failure to properly accommodate him which caused him to break his terms of probation,” said Olivia Lee, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas.
The advocacy organizations are now asking the federal Department of Justice to intervene and require Bonham ISD to institute training, data collection of students’ complaints, and policies to protect students from discrimination based on their race and disability status, and among other remedies. They are also seeking to compel the district to reevaluate a student’s disabilities and to provide services and support before referring any students to truancy court. (On Monday, the organizations also filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency against another district, Corpus Christi ISD, for using truancy court to discriminate and push out students with disabilities from school.)
The complaint mostly targets the school district for violating civil rights laws, but it also blames the Bonham Municipal Court for perpetuating the discrimination against C.J. by using the truancy system to oust a student with disabilities without following prevention measures that call for parent notification, counseling, and/or mentoring to address the cause of a students’ absences. Attorneys argue that the Court also violated C.J.’s 6th and 14th Amendment rights by failing to appoint counsel to represent him in his truancy case.
Additionally, the complaint calls on the Department of Justice to review the Bonham Police Department’s handling of complaints of discrimination based on race and disability discrimination. According to its website, the department has around 30 employees for a city of 10,700 people. A police dispatcher told the Observer that none of the officers are Black; one officer is Hispanic.
C.J.’s grandmother told the Observer that despite all of this, C.J. wants to continue his education. Before he graduated last summer, he had been in DAEP for two years. His grandmother tells me C.J. wants to take computer programming classes and pursue that as a career.
“I don’t want to see this happen to anybody else’s kid,” she said.
No matter what color you are. Especially if you have a disability. The law says that each child has a right to a good education.
At 70, C.J.’s grandmother has lived in Bonham all her life. She was in the fifth grade when Bonham ISD finally followed integration orders in 1965. She had to start in the integrated schools one year behind grade level because Black students had been given textbooks two years after white students used them. She recalls that even within the integrated schools, Black and White students still drank from different water fountains and showered in different stalls after gym classes.
When I ask her what progress she’s seen in Bonham since she was a child, she says,
There’s still a lot of work to do.
Josephine Lee is the Texas Observer‘s 2023-2024 David McHam Investigative Reporting Fellow. She has previously worked as an educator and community organizer. Her reporting on labor, environment, politics, and education has been featured on Salon, Daily Beast, Truthout, and other outlets. She was raised in and lives in Houston.