Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local News

July 9, 2013

Civil rights organization targets Russell schools

Group claims racial harassment, files complaints on behalf of student

ASHLAND — Editor’s note: This story contains language some readers may find offensive.

A civil rights organization has filed complaints with two federal agencies urging both to investigate the Russell Independent Schools over alleged “severe, persistent and ongoing” racial harassment suffered by a 14-year-old Asian-American student.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, based in Philadelphia, lodged complaints last week with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on behalf of Milena Clarke and her parents, Terry and Christi Clarke.

The complaints allege Milena, an adoptee of Asian-Kazakh heritage, was subjected to “severe and pervasive peer-on-peer” racial and national origin harassment and discrimination from 2011 to 2013 while a member of the RMS girls’ basketball team and a student at the school, and that school officials had “actual knowledge” of the situation, but failed to take action to prevent it.

The organization also alleges Milena’s coaches and school officials took steps to penalize Milena and her family for speaking up about the girl’s mistreatment, including reducing her playing time and threatening to deny her future basketball opportunities.

“School officials have an obligation to stop harassment once they’re notified of it,” AALDEF staff attorney Thomas Mariadason said in a prepared release. “We are asking the federal authorities to intervene to stop the harassment and investigate the family’s claims. We believe that they must ensure that students like Milena can not only participate in school programs free of harassment, but also safely raise their concerns when they’re victims of the type of behavior at issue here.”

The AALDEF maintains that the harassment of Milena and the district’s failure to take action to stop it violated her right to equal protection under the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and discriminated against her in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The school system’s alleged failure to respond to reports of Milena’s harassment in a timely manner also violated the bylaws of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, the complaints state.

But an attorney representing the school district maintained the district was never given the chance to properly investigate the allegations involving Milena and that the actions of her parents and the AALDEF served to short-circuit the investigative process.

“It’s unclear to me what really happened, if anything,” said Michael Schmidt of Paintsville, who was hired by the school as outside counsel to help conduct an investigation after the district received a letter from the civil rights organization in April. “But it is my opinion that the district never had a fair opportunity to look into the matter.”

According to the complaints filed with the federal agencies, the AALDEF sent a letter to then-Russell Superintendent Susan Compton in April advising her of the district’s obligation to address and abate the harassment. Compton did not reply to the letter, but instead emailed Terry Clarke “weeks later” and told him an investigation would commence “immediately.”

The investigation concluded there had been “a lack of understanding on the part of the coaching staff of when to move a complaint to an administrator,” but disavowed any responsibility on the district’s part for breakdowns in the reporting procedure, the complaint states. It also failed to recommend any plan to address the harassment Milena “continues to suffer at school” and proposed “no specific remedies for ensuring her immediate and future well-being.”

However, according to Schmidt, school officials contacted Terry Clarke early in the investigative process about meeting with them to outline exactly what had been done to his daughter and by who. Terry Clarke responded by saying he and his family were represented by the AALDEF and the district would have to go through the organization, he said.

Schmidt said an attorney for the AALDEF was contacted, but refused to make the Clarkes available for an interview. Other correspondence was later sent to the organization by the district, but never replied to, he said.

What the district was left with in the end was some emails from Terry Clarke that were “contradictory,” did not specify who had allegedly harassed his daughter and were not nearly enough upon which to base an investigation, Schmidt said.

“Then, the next thing anyone knew, they (the AALDEF) came out with a press release about how they were filing these complaints,” he said.

According to the complaints filed by the AALDEF, Milena — who was born in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and came to live with the Clarkes when she was 18 months old — was regularly singled out and called racial slurs by her teammates in the locker room, on the team bus, during games and practices and in school hallways. She was called “Russian chink,” “gook,” and “commie,” and mocked for observing Russian Orthodox prayer rituals, the documents state.

The alleged harassment also included regular slurs about African-American teammates and friends Milena had made through the local spring/summer travel ball circuit.

When Milena alerted her coaches to what was happening, she was told the harassment “was an inevitable part of participating on a sports team to which she would have to acclimate,” the complaints state. Terry Clarke sent numerous emails to members of the coaching staff and to school officials, but “his requests for intervention were left unattended,” according to the organization.

“Most troubling, the treatment of Milena by her basketball coaches worsened subsequent to the family’s reports of harassment, and (school) officials failed to intervene when alerted to the Clarke family’s growing concerns of retaliation,” the complaints state.

According to the AALDEF, Milena’s first year of playing middle school basketball, for the sixth-grade team, “transpired without incident,” and her coach, Kim Stapleton Suttles, told her parents she should try out for the state’s highly competitive Amateur Athletic Union. Since then, Milena has earned positions on AAU teams in Kentucky and West Virginia, all-star recognition in school and AAU tournaments and “high accolades” from her coaches for her skills on the court.

The alleged harassment began in Milena’s second year of organized basketball after she earned positions on both the seventh- and eight-grade teams, the complaint states. In the first incident, two of her seventh-grade teammates “physically restrained” her during a rebounding drill and began to taunt, insult and provoke her.

The harassment became “explicity racial” in August 2011 after Milena’s African-American AAU coach and several members of her AAU team came to Russell High School to watch Milena play in a game against Mason County, according to the complaint. Beginning at halftime in the locker room and continuing after the game, Milena’s RMS teammates peppered her with racial epithets and asked her “patently offensive” racial questions about her AAU coach and teammates, such as “How can you stand to play with niggers?” and “Is it something about you minorities sticking together?”

Milena has suffered “cumulative impacts to her mental health” as a result of the persistent harassment, according to the complaints. At various times since 2011, she has reported feeling depressed and unmotivated and described emotional trauma associated with the bullying.

“She has also been compelled time and again to modify her behavior during basketball activities and at school to try and reduce the impact of her teammates’ harassment,” the documents state.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.

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