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

Posted on 09 Dec 2010 at 11:06am

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.

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