A recently resolved lawsuit highlights the importance of insisting that Washington public school officials fulfill their legal responsibility to curtail harassment and bullying of students at school. In holding a school district accountable for its inaction, the case sends a message that educators need to respond quickly and forcefully when they learn that a student is being bullied.
The case arose from the very troubling treatment of Russell Dickerson III, now 20, 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 the misconduct, he 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 extracurricular activities that put him in contact with his peers. Further, he suffered extreme emotional distress, including an inability to concentrate on studies, as well as serious depression, despair and anxiety.
With representation by the ACLU of Washington, Dickerson filed suit against his school district in U.S. District Court in Tacoma in 2010. The lawsuit (Dickerson v. Aberdeen) said that district officials were aware of the harassment he suffered at school but failed to take steps reasonably calculated to end it. The lawsuit further contended that the failure to respond properly to ongoing harassment by the school district, which receives federal funds, violated federal law: specifically, 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.
In late January, the ACLU-WA announced a settlement in the suit: Dickerson would receive $100,000 from the Aberdeen School District; additionally, the ACLU would receive $35,000 in legal fees. The settlement was reached prior to any party conducting any discovery in the case or any motions practice occurring. Dickerson was represented by 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.
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