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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 10, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 50
Teen sues Aberdeen school district over bullying
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Teen sues Aberdeen school district over bullying

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The ACLU of Washington has filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Tacoma on behalf of a young man who says he was relentlessly bullied throughout middle school and high school.

Russell Dickerson III, 19 years old, says the Aberdeen School District knew he was being harassed but did not remedy the situation. Now in college, Dickerson says he suffers from PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome) and still avoids malls and other public places where he fears he might encounter his high school tormentors.

Speaking at a December 7 press conference called by the ACLU to announce the suit, Dickerson compared his school experience to a prison sentence.

Soft-spoken but intense, Dickerson said he suffered daily insults and was frequently physically harassed, both for his race and because of the perception that he was Gay.

The bullying began when he entered middle school in 2003 and continued till he graduated from high school in 2009.

Because of the constant bullying, Dickerson says, he experienced extreme isolation and despair, and continues to fear new people and unfamiliar situations. He was diagnosed with PTSD at the age of 14.

He managed to graduate high school because I don't give up, he says, and now takes online courses at a technical college.

It's disheartening to hear stories almost daily about harassment and bullying, he told reporters. I'm hopeful a local story can help bring about change.

According to the complaint filed by the ACLU, Dickerson was called stupid nigger, dickass, dog, asshole, bitchface, shithead, dumbfucker, fuckass, nigger, nappy ho, Rusty Dickskinner, faggot, Gay, Shake-n-Bake, and fat-ass heifer.

Dickerson says that other students at Miller Junior High School threw food at him, stole his school supplies, tripped him, and spit on his lunch tray.

In April 2004, the ACLU complaint says, three students pushed Dickerson to the floor in a school hallway and smashed a raw egg on his head.

The harassment continued when Dickerson attended Aberdeen High School.

In spring 2007, students at the high school created a website to mock him, where they posted racist and anti-Gay comments.

Dickerson says he became the target of even more harassment after he complained about the website to school authorities.

He was also subjected to groping and other kinds of sexual harassment because of his perceived sexual orientation.

The complaint also says that the Aberdeen School District allowed a group of students calling themselves the Hick Boys to display Confederate flags on school property.

The superintendent of the Aberdeen School District knew about Dickerson's situation, but was deliberately indifferent to it and took no steps reasonably calculated to put an end to it, the ACLU complaint says.

In 2005, the assistant principal of Aberdeen High School discouraged Dickerson from reporting bullying against him, the complaint continues.

The ACLU became involved in the case in 2007, at the invitation of Dickerson's father, after his interventions with the school district failed to halt the abuse of his son.

The ACLU suit asks for an as yet unspecified amount of money to cover Dickerson's college education and counseling for his PTSD.

Speaking at the December 7 press conference, ACLU-Washington executive director Kathleen Taylor said her organization was seeking redress for Dickerson, but also hoped to urge educators to take responsibility and take action against bullying.

She added that the ACLU saw lawsuits as the last resort, not the first resort, but their nearly three years of negotiation with the Aberdeen School District had not yielded satisfactory results for Dickerson.

Asked if she felt the school district was acting in good faith, she replied, It's often very hard to figure that out.

Dickerson's father, Russell Dickerson, Jr, said he was not angry - but I'm frustrated.

I gave them my son, my biggest asset, my biggest investment, I turned him over to the school district to give quality care and they failed, the elder Dickerson said.

Asked if he considered home schooling his son, Dickerson frowned.

I shouldn't have to pull my son out of school because of harassment, he said. Every parent should be concerned when the school district has no accountability and students are allowed to dictate the culture of a school district.

Also on December 7, Aberdeen School District Superintendent Thomas Opstad issued a statement on the case claiming that the District worked diligently and collaboratively with the Dickerson family to investigate and address Russell's complaints about his treatment.

Opstad goes on to say that students who engaged in harassment were appropriately disciplined.

Asked by SGN to provide details about the scope and results of their investigation, school district spokesperson Dee Anne Shaw did not have an immediate comment.

The superintendent is out of the office, she said in an e-mail. I will make sure he knows about your questions when he returns.

Opstad told SGN on December 9, Since it's now in the court system, it's no longer in my purview to comment on this.

Commenting on the school district's statement, ACLU communications director Doug Honig told SGN that we're not alleging they did nothing, just that what they did was ineffective in stopping the harassment. It was too little, too late.

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