Law firms representing a Baltimore man and his daughter are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against a Sesame Place in Middletown for “pervasive and appalling race discrimination” against children who are park guests.
The civil lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in the US District Court in Philadelphia, comes a little more than a week after a Brooklyn, New York, woman posted a video of a costumed performer at the theme park allegedly dismissing her daughter and niece, but interacting with guests of other races, during a July 16 visit.
The original 9-second video posted on social media led other parents to post at least a half-dozen similar videos allegedly showing Sesame Place employees in character costumes ignoring Black children, while interacting with children of other races.
The allegations of racial discrimination have generated a firestorm of controversy for the park and its operators that has included calls for a boycott of the park and requests from the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP to meet with executives of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, which owns and runs the park.
The Sesame Workshop, which owns the licensing rights to the TV show characters, has been in “active dialogue” with SeaWorld to urge them to take “immediate and significant action,” including thoroughly reviewing their policies, procedures and training addressing concerns voiced by families .
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In the lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, Quinton Burns and his daughter, Kennedi, who are Black, allege they were discriminated against during a Father’s Day visit to the park on June 18.
“Kennedi was forced to experience racism at the age of five; this is unacceptable and we will not stand by and let this continue,” said attorney Malcolm Ruff at an afternoon news conference in Philadelphia.
According to the lawsuit, Burns and his Kennedi, attempted to participate in a “Meet and Greet” at the park featuring employees in costume playing the characters of “Elmo,” “Ernie,” “Telly Monster,” and “Abby Cadabby.”
But Burns alleviates the performers “intentionally” refused to interact with them and “ignoring them and all other Black guests in attendance,” according to the suit, which names SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, its LLC, and four unidentified park costume-wearing performers.
In a statement released Wednesday evening Sesame Place said that it would review the lawsuit and looked forward to addressing its claims through the “established legal process.”
“We are committed to deliver an inclusive, equitable and entertaining experience for all our guests,” the statement added.
The lawsuit alleges that SeaWorld engages in “pervasive and appalling race discrimination against children in the operation of the Bucks County theme park, a violation federal and Pennsylvania laws.
While the Burns family is the primary plaintiff in the suit, if a federal judge certifies the case as a class action, the suit would allow the number of class members to join.
According to the suit, qualifying members would be Black guests who have visited Sesame Place since July 27, 2018 who experienced “disparate treatment” at the park; specifically by performers who ignored Black children, while “openly interacting with similarly situated white children.”
Attorneys said they would release video of the Burns’ family interactions at Sesame Place later Wednesday. Ruff said the video will show Kennedi reaching out to characters and being ignored.
“We have seen a pattern; everyone in America has seen a pattern,” Huff said.
The attorneys, with the Baltimore civil rights law firm that represented the family of Freddie Gray, said they want SeaWorld to voluntarily release complaints that they have received from Black parents about discrimination against their children.
“We are here to give Sesame Place the opportunity to do the right thing without us forcing them to,” said Mart Harris, attorney from Harrisburg. “This will be a message to stop it before we catch it.”
In a series of statements earlier this month, Sesame Place has apologized to Brown and called the incident “unacceptable.” The Brown family is not associated with the lawsuit filed Wednesday, but the incident Jodi Brown shared on social media has sparked conversation around treatment of minority children in the theme park and led Burns to come forward.
The park said that it is reviewing its practices to identify immediate and long-term changes, has hired a “nationally recognized” expert to assist them and has implemented new mandatory bias training for employees.
Neither Sesame Place or SeaWorld responded to email seeking comment on those reported talks or if the “Rosita” performer who allegedly ignored Brown’s daughter and niece has been disciplined. In its initial statement, the park said the employee was “devastated” to learn of the misunderstanding.
Attorney Billy Murphy, also representing Burns in the lawsuit, said what happened at Sesame Place is not only about how it effects the children, but parents in many way have been more grievously injured because they understand the impact of discrimination on their children.
Murphy said that racism is horrible when perpetrated against adults, but its another category when its perpetrated against children.
“I’m hurting, devastated me and my wife. Just looking at her face, it makes me want to cry every time I see it,” Quinton Burns said at the news conference he attended in Philadelphia with his daughter.
His attorneys said the lawsuit seeks compensation for family; to punish SeaWorld; to obtain a declaration from the federal courts that Seaworld violated civil rights; and injunctive relief to force SeaWorld to change policies.
A spokeswoman for the attorney representing Jodi Brown, the mom whose cellphone video has been viewed more than 880,000 times since it was posted, said Wednesday that talks are continuing with SeaWorld and Sesame Place leadership.
The Brown family has called for the termination of the performer who ignored her daughter and niece and significant changes in park policy and employee training.
Brown contends that a performer in the “Rosita” costume intentionally rejected hug requests from her daughter and niece, and instead high-fived adults and children of different races on either side of them.
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Brown’s attorney, B’Ivory LaMarr, also has claimed that “multiple families” with similar negative experiences with character performers have reached out to his law office since Brown posted her video on Twitter and Instagram.
A south central Pennsylvania man, who is Black, has posted a video of what he says shows an employee wearing an “Elmo” costume ignoring his 5-year-old daughter’s high-five request during a July 4 visit to the theme park.
The Instagram video has more than 30,000 views as of Friday morning.
On Saturday, about two dozen protesters peacefully rallied outside the park for several hours. Two New Jersey men were arrested after they repeatedly attempted to block traffic while yelling expletives at police and guests.
Staff writer Damon Williams contributed to this report.
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