A former student who endured severe and persistent harassment throughout junior high and high school has gained a major settlement from the Aberdeen School District, the ACLU of Washington announced today. The ACLU has represented Russell Dickerson III in a lawsuit saying that school district officials were aware of the harassment but failed to take steps reasonably calculated to end it. Under terms of the settlement, Dickerson will receive $100,000 from the district. Additionally, the ACLU will receive $35,000 in legal fees.
“Public school officials must be held accountable when they fail to meet their responsibility to act decisively when a student is subjected to harassment by his peers. This settlement sends a message to school districts statewide to take strong action as soon as they learn that a student is being bullied,” said Sarah Dunne, ACLU-WA legal director.
“I learned from my parents that you should never give up. You should fight for your rights – you don’t just walk away,” said Dickerson.
Russell Dickerson III, now 20, is an African-American resident of Aberdeen. For six years, from 2003 when he entered junior high until 2009 when he graduated high school, other students harassed Dickerson on the basis of his race, sex, and perceived sexual orientation.
At Miller Junior High, Dickerson was called names by other students and found notes in his backpack and taped to his back calling him “stupid nigger” and “dog.” Students tripped him in the hallways and threw food at him in the cafeteria. In one incident, three students pushed him to the floor in the hallway and smashed a raw egg on his head; only one of the students was disciplined.
At Aberdeen High School, the harassment escalated, with Dickerson subjected to a continuing barrage of viciously derogatory insults about his race, physical appearance, and suspected sexual orientation. Dickerson suffered physical harassment, with other students pinching and fondling his chest, spitting on his head, and throwing objects at him. Although an assistant principal discouraged Dickerson from reporting misconduct by the student’s peers, the student and his parents repeatedly reported incidents of harassment to district administrators, both verbally and in writing. Yet the district failed to take adequate steps to end the harassment.
In 2007 students in the district created a website mocking Dickerson and his perceived sexual orientation, and posted threatening racist comments on it. Students discussed the website at school. Grays Harbor Superior Court issued a no contact order between Dickerson and one of his harassers who had threatened on the website to lynch him, yet Dickerson became the target of retaliatory harassment after reporting the website to school authorities.
The school district’s failure to act created a hostile educational environment for the student. His academic progress was hindered, he was isolated at school, he felt discouraged from using his locker, and he avoided extra-curricular activities that put him in contact with his peers. Further, the student suffered extreme emotional distress, including an inability to concentrate on studies, serious depression, despair, and anxiety.
Filed in December 2010 in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, the lawsuit said that the deliberate indifference to ongoing harassment by the school district, which receives federal funds, violated federal law – Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The district’s negligent inaction also violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination.
ACLU-WA cooperating attorneys Michael Scott, Joseph Sakay, and Alexander Wu of Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson P.S. and ACLU-WA staff attorneys Sarah Dunne and Rose Spidell represented Dickerson.