Wash. teen files lawsuit accusing district of failing to protect him from bullying

Malicious MySpace page listed sexual orientation as ‘unsure’

GENE JOHNSON  |  Associated Press

SEATTLE  — A 19-year-old graduate of Aberdeen High School sued the school district Tuesday, Dec. 7, blaming officials for failing to keep him from being bullied by classmates who smashed an egg on his head, taunted him over his race and perceived sexual orientation, and set up a malicious MySpace page in his name.

Sometimes shaking as he recalled the torment during a news conference, Russell Dickerson III said the harassment made it hard to focus on school and was so traumatic that even now the memory sometimes keeps him from leaving his house. His father, Russell Dickerson Jr., said the family complained to school officials repeatedly, to no avail.

“It was like a prison sentence,” the teen said. “I found myself dreading school.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington filed the lawsuit on Dickerson’s behalf in U.S. District Court in Tacoma. It alleges civil rights violations, violations of state anti-discrimination law and negligence, and seeks compensation for emotional harm and lost opportunities.

Aberdeen Superintendent Thomas A. Opstad said the district denies letting any student be harassed without prompt corrective action.

“During Russell’s time as a student, the district worked diligently and collaboratively with the Dickerson family to investigate and address Russell’s complaints about his treatment,” he said. “Where misconduct was substantiated, students who engaged in harassment were appropriately disciplined.”

He noted that Dickerson is a now a member of the district’s staff and provides tutoring to elementary students, which Opstad said shows the former student feels comfortable in the district.

ACLU spokesman Doug Honig said Dickerson’s comfort in tutoring elementary students “in no way speaks to the harassment that he endured for six years in junior high and high school.”

Dickerson and the ACLU said they hoped the lawsuit would help amplify the attention school bullying has garnered lately. In Washington, where officials say that nearly 15,000 students were suspended for bullying in the 2008-09 school year, a new law requires every public school to have a policy for dealing with bullying.

And in response to recent suicides by bullied gay young people, Seattle author and columnist Dan Savage launched a popular national campaign inspiring many people — including President Barack Obama — to record video messages assuring teens, “It gets better.”

Dickerson said the harassment began in junior high in 2003. By the next year, he and his family had complained repeatedly about bullying, and his frustrated parents took it up with the school board during a meeting that fall, according to a 2004 article in The Daily World newspaper of Aberdeen.

Nevertheless, the family said, the harassment continued. Dickerson’s father, a prison guard, is black and his mother is white, and Dickerson said his peers subjected him to racial slurs and derogatory comments about his physical appearance and perceived sexual orientation. They sometimes groped his chest and threw things at him, the lawsuit claims.

The ACLU became involved in the case in 2007, after students created a fake MySpace page in Dickerson’s name. The web page featured an unflattering picture of Dickerson which had been taken without his knowledge at school, and listed his sexual orientation as “not sure,” The Daily World reported.

One student, Brandon Peterman, pleaded guilty to a harassment charge and was sentenced to seven days in jail for writing a racial slur on the Web page and saying, “i’ll hang you so fast if you tell onme (sic) ever again.”

Peterman told the newspaper, “I’m really sorry he had to see it. I just wish I could take it back and it was just an immature thing to do for all of us.”

Then-Superintendent Martin Kay said at the time that he called Dickerson’s family to apologize.

Opstad said Aberdeen took several steps to promote acceptance in schools, including providing guides on the topic to parents and students, discussing bullying at parent-teacher conferences, and training all staff and students to reduce harassment.

But the ACLU said Tuesday that even after that the district failed to take meaningful steps to create a safe learning environment.

Dickerson, who is enrolled in an online college program and hopes to work in information technology, encouraged other bullied youngsters to persevere. Getting an education is too important not to, he said.

“If you give that up, you’re just quitting on yourself,” he said.

—  John Wright

German court finds HIV-positive singer guilty for having unprotected sex; no jail time

CHRISTOPH NOELTING  |  Associated Press

DARMSTADT, Germany — A German girl band singer broke down in tears Thursday, Aug. 26 as a court found her guilty of causing bodily harm to her ex-boyfriend by having unprotected sex with him despite knowing she was infected with HIV. She was not sentenced to jail time.

Nadja Benaissa, a member of No Angels, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence and 300 hours community service after she was convicted in a Darmstadt administrative court. She faced a possible ten years behind bars.

The court ruled that the 28-year-old had infected a former boyfriend with the virus that causes AIDS by having unprotected sex with him.

Benaissa helped her case during the trial, which began Aug. 16, by acknowledging she had unprotected sex despite knowing she was HIV-positive and saying it was a big mistake.

“I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart,” Benaissa said, adding that she had realized how much her ex-boyfriend was still suffering.

“I wish I could turn back time and make everything undone,” she told the court. “But I know that he will never forgive me.”

Prosecutor Peter Liesenfeld said he thought the sentence was appropriate.

“We have to remember that she was a lot younger than she is now, she had a turbulent life, and the acts were committed a long time ago,” he told Associated Press Television News. “I think a suspended sentence is justified.”

Benaissa left the courtroom without making any comment but her attorney Oliver Wallasch noted that she had said during the trial that she thought she deserved to be punished for her actions.

“We managed to avoid a jail sentence for my client and with the conditions of the sentence she received, including some community service which she said was justified during the trial, the sentence was satisfactory for the defense and my client,” he said.

The man who claimed Benaissa infected him said they had a three-month relationship at the beginning of 2004 and that he got tested after Benaissa’s aunt asked him in 2007 whether he was aware that the singer was HIV-positive.

Benaissa said she didn’t tell anybody about her disease because she was afraid of the consequences — which she described during the trial as a “cowardly act.”

During the trial, microbiologist Josef Eberle, who examined the viruses of both Benaissa and her ex-boyfriend, told the court “in all probability” the singer was responsible for infecting the 34-year-old man with the virus that causes AIDS.

Both were suffering from a very rare type of the virus that was first found in western Africa, he said.

Benaissa told the court she became addicted to crack cocaine at 14 and that during her pregnancy at 16, she found out that she was HIV positive.

After winning a TV talent show, “Popstars,” in 2000, she joined No Angels with four other young women and hid her illness from everyone. No Angels sold more than 5 million albums before breaking up in 2003.

Along with three other members from the original band, Benaissa helped re-form the group in 2007. They performed to a disastrous response in the 2008 Eurovision song contest, coming in 23rd out of 25 contestants.

No Angels were heading into a concert in Frankfurt in April 2009, when Benaissa was taken into custody and kept for 10 days _ a move that a German AIDS awareness group criticized as disproportionate.

The Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe group argued her partners also carried a share of the responsibility for becoming infected, and criticized the verdict.

“If the responsibility for prevention is put entirely upon women and HIV-positive people, we are not recognizing the combined responsibility of two people,” said spokeswoman Marianne Rademacher.

—  John Wright