Last week, Russell Dickerson, a 19-year-old former student of the Aberdeen School District in Washington state, filed suit against his former school district claiming that the school district should be liable for the hostile educational environment created by bullies who taunted him over his race, sex, and perceived sexual orientation. He asserts that his academic progress was hindered by the bullying. In addition, he claims that his experience in the school district led him to suffer from extreme emotional distress and psychological damage, which resulted in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dickerson asserts that from 2003 until 2009, he was called names, such as “stupid nigger,” “nappy ho,” and “faggot.” Notes were posted on his back calling him a “stupid nigger” and “dog.” Aside from verbal harassment, he was subject to physical harassment in the halls and in the cafeteria, such as pinching, fondling, and spitting. In one incident, three students pushed him to the floor and smashed a raw egg on his head. In addition, Dickerson was subject to other forms of harassment – including the threat of being lynched – after students in the district set up a fake MySpace page that taunted Dickerson because of his race and perceived sexual orientation.
The suit claims that school district officials were aware that Dickerson was being bullied but failed to take actions to address it. One assistant principal recommended that Dickerson change his style of clothing if he wanted to avoid harassment. Another assistant principal suggested that Dickerson refrain from reporting bullying. Nevertheless, Dickerson and his parents repeatedly reported incidents of bullying to district administrators, both verbally and in writing.
The ACLU of Washington is representing the student in the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. The suit says that the deliberate indifference to ongoing harassment by Aberdeen School District violated federal law – Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects students from discrimination based on race, and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects students from discrimination based on sex. The suit also says that the district violated state anti-discrimination law.
Currently, no federal statute explicitly protects students from being discriminated against by schools because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. HRC is working to address this omission in our nation’s laws by lobbying Congress to pass the Student Non-Discrimination Act, a bill introduced this year by Senator Franken and Congressman Polis that prohibits schools from discriminating against public school students on the basis of the student’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.