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Federal lawsuit filed alleging racism in Elma schools

A black female student, who graduated from Elma High School last year, says the Elma School District is in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act for allowing an environment of prejudice and racism to continue unfettered in the hallways of the high school, prompting her to forgo the last weeks of her senior year out of fear and anger.

Cassie Hall filed a lawsuit alleging breaches of Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, accusing the district and EHS Principal Kevin Acuff of denying Hall’s “fundamental right to have an education free from bigotry and discriminatory intimidation, and to enjoy the same educational opportunities as her Caucasian peers.”

The suit claims that: “Over the course of her high school career, Miss Hall was routinely subjected to racist epithets, ridicule and intimidation, including death threats and being regularly referred to as a ‘n——-’ by her peers. She was also routinely subjected to stereotyping and racist assumptions by her teachers. At base, this case is about the Elma School District’s complacency in the face of repeated instances of racial discrimination and its failure to acknowledge, let alone adequately correct, the racism that Miss Hall was forced to endure. As a result, Miss Hall was denied the educational experience that most Caucasian Americans take for granted, and her formative years were punctuated by discriminatory hostility, ridicule, and threats that caused her substantial emotional distress and diminished her educational experience.”

Cassie Hall and her family could not be reached for comment on the suit, which was filed in October of last year. Hall’s attorney, Christopher Lundberg out of Portland, declined to comment on the litigation.

The suit is expected to be heard in a jury trial some time later this year or early next year. The plaintiff is seeking compensatory and punitive damages against both the Elma School District and Acuff.

“I really can’t comment,” King said. “Whenever there’s any litigation, we’re advised by counsel not to speak and to let it run its course.”

When asked if there was a racism problem at Elma High, King responded: “We do a great job of dealing with all kinds of issues. I’m very pleased with the way we handle situations.”

Acuff declined to comment, citing the advice of the district’s attorneys.

The suit alleges that the racial harassment began in Hall’s freshman year and continued throughout her academic career at Elma High. The school district apparently investigated the incidents with reports on file. The Vidette has a public records request to get the reports.

In motions filed with the court by attorneys representing Acuff and the school district, the defense has moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims for punitive damages, saying the charges do not meet the standard for those damages to be awarded. The judge, who heard oral arguments in November, has not yet ruled on the matter. If the judge rules punitive damages don’t stand, it would strip the lawsuit of awarding any kind of monetary damages that would essentially punish the district for allowing the actions to continue except for the monetary damages that Hall can actually prove she suffered, such as counseling expenses.

Attorneys for the district say that Principal Acuff did not act “with evil motive or intent or that his conduct was wreckless or callous.” The attorneys state that Hall “did not set forth facts which would make it plausible that (the school district) acted in such extremely egregious manner that punitive damages should be awarded.”

ALLEGATIONS ARE MANY

The lawsuit was filed on Oct. 9, 2013 — just four months after Hall graduated. Attorneys for Hall cite numerous incidents of racial harassment by fellow students and seeming indifference by numerous teachers and staff at the school. Other than Acuff, none of those students or staff members are party to the suit, so The Vidette is withholding their names.

Some of the allegations cited in the suit are:

• During her freshman year, Miss Hall was routinely subjected to racial harassment by other students in the upper grades. The lawsuit alleges that Hall was regularly being called “n——-,” while also being shouldered into by these students. The lawsuit states that in order to avoid “physically threatening racial harassment by the upper classmen, Miss Hall began to have a male friend walk with her between classes. If she could find no male friend available to escort her, Miss Hall would walk outside the school in order to avoid passing these students in the halls.”

Also during her freshman year, somebody anonymously vandalized a number of student bathrooms by writing the phrase “Kill all n——-” on the walls and listing the names of approximately six male black students.

The school was unable to determine who had written the racist hit-lists on the bathroom walls. While it reported on the incident, the lawsuit states that the school did not provide adequate counseling for affected students, outreach to potential racists, or schoolwide training to “confront and alter the racist attitudes of potential future perpetrators.” Previously, in 2008, before Hall attended the Elma High School, there had been another, similar instance of vandalism threatening to kill a number of black students.

• In her sophomore year, during a history class in which a video pertaining to the history of slavery was shown, one of the students called Hall a “porch monkey.” Teacher A and a para-educator were present in the classroom when that student made the statement but did not do anything about it. Shortly thereafter, Hall wrote a note to the teacher, explaining that she felt it was not a good idea to show such videos. The teacher allegedly did not respond. In another incident in the same teacher’s class, the same student placed his foot on Hall’s chair as she was sitting down. Miss Hall sat on his foot and immediately stood back up saying “What the heck?” The other student responded by stating “What, you don’t like that? I thought black girls liked it in the butt.”

In a third incident in the same teacher’s class, the teacher was showing an episode of “The Maury Povich Show” dealing with the topic of paternity. The captions at the bottom of the screen showed that one of the guests on the show asked, “Who’s my baby’s daddy?” A female student in the class said “That will be Cassie — she won’t know who her baby’s daddy is.” A male student added, “Yep — that will be Cassie.” These comments were made loudly enough for the teacher and para-educator to hear, but Hall’s attorneys say they let the behavior slide.

According to the lawsuit, Hall and her mother, Debra Hall, reported these instances of discrimination to school administrators, including Principal Acuff. The suit claims that despite these reports, the Elma School District and Mr. Acuff failed to adequately investigate or respond to these incidents.

• During Hall’s sophomore year, a third anonymous hit-list was circulated among students at the school. This hit-list was in the form of a letter that stated “Kill all “n——-” and then named all of the African-American students in the school. As a result of this list, and out of concern for her safety, Miss Hall (and other African-American students) stayed at home from school the next day. The suit claims that “the school did not notify parents about this incident, nor did it do anything to investigate the hit-list or take steps to correct the threat and insure that similar incidents did not recur.”

The suit alleges that, “not surprisingly given the School District’s complacency, the racial hostility continued into Miss Hall’s junior year, and included the following incidents:”

• During an English class led by Teacher B, the class was assigned a poem about the Jim Crow laws. The same male student who had made other racist comments, pointedly told Miss Hall that “black people shouldn’t talk because the white man owns them.”

• During an economics class led by Teacher C, in which the class was presented with raw cotton, another male student asked Hall “Hey, Cassie, do your hands hurt from picking this?” The rest of the class heard the comment and laughed out loud, according to the suit. A para-educator in that class allegedly heard the comment. When Miss Hall told the teacher about the incident, he claimed not to have heard it.

• Hall was repeatedly told by her peers that the only reason she was getting into college was because she “was black.”

NAZI, KKK AFFILIATIONS

In another incident in Teacher C’s class during Hall’s junior year, the teacher showed the students a video about Adolf Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. During the showing of that video, a number of students, who called themselves “rednecks,” openly displayed the Confederate flag and claimed allegiance to the Aryan Nation, did a Nazi-styled salute. One of Hall’s peers told her that he couldn’t talk to her because he was a member of the KKK. Another student looked at Cassie and told her that “black people should be slaves.” Nothing was done to correct the situation.

Miss Hall’s mother, Debra Hall, reported this incident to Mr. Acuff. According to the lawsuit, the principal investigated the comment made by the student, who admitted to it. During that investigation, Mr. Acuff found that same student was carrying a knife and had a hat emblazoned with a swastika. While Mr. Acuff suspended the student, he allegedly allowed him to return to the school shortly thereafter on the sole condition that he write a letter of apology to Miss Hall. Mr. Acuff did not subject him to any other disciplinary or corrective action. Mr. Acuff also took no further action to investigate or discipline the other students or to correct the teachers’ inaction.

The suit also alleges that Hall was subjected to discrimination by a number of school administrators and teachers:

• In another instance involving an administrator, Hall reported to her that another student had called her a “n——-.” The administrator, who was acting vice principal that day, allegedly dismissed Hall’s concerns, telling her that she didn’t think the student “meant to say that.”

• A student in one of Hall’s English classes complained to Teacher B that it wasn’t fair that an African-American student who had broken a school running record should have her name on the school record-board because “she’s black and has an extra bone in her foot.” Rather than correct the student’s misinformed racist stereotype, Teacher B told the class that it was “not an extra bone,” but rather an “extra muscle.” Teacher B went on to state that “slaves were born to be fast” and that “you don’t see white wide receivers.”

On another occasion during English class, Teacher B told the class that racism no longer existed. This upset Miss Hall greatly, and she left class in tears. She later learned that, in response, Teacher B told the class that Miss Hall was “too sensitive” about racial issues. As she had with the instances of peer-on-peer harassment, Cassie’s mother reported Teacher B’s comments to the principal. According to the suit, Mr. Acuff suggested that she and Miss Hall meet with Teacher B and himself so that Miss Hall could express her feelings to Teacher B directly. During the course of that meeting, Teacher B appeared not to understand the impact that his comments had made on Miss Hall, and he repeatedly interrupted or talked over her in an effort to defend his actions. As a result of Teacher B’s actions, Miss Hall and her mother left the meeting. Mr. Acuff was dissatisfied with how Teacher B handled the meeting and acknowledged that he felt that Teacher B “didn’t get it.” However, aside from having a follow-up discussion about Teacher B’s level of “sensitivity,” Mr. Acuff allegedly took no further action to correct or retrain him.

DISTRICT INVESTIGATES

According to the suit, because the district and principal failed to correct the pervasive racially hostile educational environment, Miss Hall and her mother sent a letter to the School Board detailing the situation and demanding that it correct it. They also filed a complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The School Board responded by informing the Halls that it would “be conducting an investigation.” On Feb. 5, 2013, the Elma School District issued its investigation. Hall says nothing was done. The Vidette is requesting a copy of the investigation and other public documents related to this case.

The discrimination persisted after the investigation, the suit alleges:

• On or about May 9, 2013, Miss Hall experienced another incident of racial hostility in Teacher C’s economics class when he showed the class a movie called “The Power of One.” The movie, released in 1992 to critical acclaim and awards, is about apartheid in South Africa. While scenes of black Africans being repeatedly beaten in boxing matches were shown, several of Cassie’s Caucasian peers became visibly excited, making comments such as “hit him harder.” Hall says she reported the incident and nothing happened.

After leaving the class, the suit alleges that Hall was sitting with her boyfriend in the hallway. A group of students passed. At that point, a white student who was also sitting in the hallway, said loudly “I smell a n——-.” In response, another aforementioned student looked at Hall, laughed, and said, “No, they usually smell like fried chicken, watermelon and grape Kool Aid.” It was the same student who had previously subjected Miss Hall to numerous racial epithets without consequence, the suit says, despite those incidents having been some of the notably few that the school district’s investigation determined were founded.

Hall found this experience to be extraordinarily distressing, and she went to speak with her assigned counselor. However, as Miss Hall was waiting in the counseling office, Ms. Smith entered the office and walked right past her without even acknowledging her presence. “This was consistent with the treatment that Miss Hall has received from the staff in the counseling center, which had essentially shunned her since she formally reported her concerns outside the school setting,” the suit states.

The suit claims that the discrimination “set forth was profoundly distressing to Cassie Hall. As a result of the most recent incidents, she was unable to return to her school to complete her senior year, but rather finished her course work from home.”

The lawsuit says the school district could have helped her, but under the cloak of investigations that apparently found no racial issues at the district, ignored the situation. This has “caused her to suffer depression, to lose her trust in others — in particular the school staff and other adults who were supposed to help her — and to question her confidence and self-worth.”

She says that her teen years “have been punctuated by numerous instances of racial intolerance, physical and psychological intimidation, humiliation, and cruelty based on nothing more than the color of her skin.”

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