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Originally published Tuesday, December 7, 2010 at 10:02 PM

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Aberdeen teen, ACLU file suit claiming years of bullying at school

The ACLU of Washington has sued the Aberdeen School District on behalf of a former student who said for six years during junior and high school he was severely and persistently harassed because of his race and perceived sexual orientation, while the district did little or nothing to stop it.

Seattle Times staff reporter

For six years during junior high and high school in the Aberdeen School District, Russell Dickerson III said he was harassed by fellow students — fondled, stripped of his clothes in the hallway and spat on.

They leveled a litany of gay slurs and variations on the "N" word at him. They taped some of the words to his back, his backpack or his locker.

In 2007, when Dickerson was at Aberdeen High School, students created a website impersonating and mocking him and posted harassing and racist comments about him, including a threat by one commenter to lynch him.

In a federal lawsuit the ACLU of Washington filed Tuesday in Tacoma against the Aberdeen School District, the 19-year-old said he was harassed persistently because of his race and because students perceived him to be gay.

Through it all, he said, administrators and district officials were told of the harassment but did little or nothing to stop it — a claim the district strongly denies.

His father, Russell Dickerson Jr., said there were no other educational options for his son, including home-schooling. "I shouldn't have to pull my son out of school because of harassment," he said.

At a news conference Tuesday, Dickerson, a 2009 graduate of Aberdeen High, said that during his junior-high and high-school years, "I found myself dreading school because I did not know how I was going to be physically harassed, racially harassed, or sexually harassed that day, or by whom.

"I didn't expect bad experiences when I walked through the doors my first day of middle school," he said. "It was like a prison sentence that carried on into high school."

District Superintendent Thomas A. Opstad said that, while he hasn't seen a copy of the lawsuit, the district worked "diligently and collaboratively" with the family during Dickerson's years there to investigate and address complaints.

"The district takes complaints of harassment very seriously," Opstad wrote. "Where misconduct was substantiated, students who engaged in harassment were appropriately disciplined." The district has taken steps to insure that diversity is respected in its schools, he said.

Opstad also noted that Dickerson is now employed by the district as an elementary-school tutor, which the superintendent said would indicate he feels safe in the district's schools. The ACLU counters that Dickerson never experienced harassment in grade school.

The lawsuit, the ACLU's first in 15 years involving student harassment, comes in the wake of a rash of suicides nationwide by teens who were harassed because of their real or perceived sexual orientation. Dickerson's sexual orientation was not disclosed.

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ACLU attorneys said the district's failure to act created an environment that no student should be forced to endure, violating his federal and state civil rights. The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages.

Aberdeen police Capt. John Green said his department has investigated several complaints over the years by the Dickerson family of incidents both in school and out — of broken windows in the home and on their vehicles. "We even directed extra patrols their way, but unfortunately that's as far as it went," Green said.

Dickerson, who was diagnosed in 2004 with post-traumatic stress syndrome, said he currently is enrolled in an online college program as a way to avoid contact with his former harassers.

He alleges in the lawsuit an almost-unrelenting series of bullying incidents that began when he entered Miller Junior High School in 2003 and continued until he graduated:

In April 2004, three students pushed him to the floor in the school hallway and smashed a raw egg on his head. Only one student is believed to have been disciplined, the suit says.

One month later, an assistant principal wrote to the principal that Dickerson still was being harassed and asked for ideas on how to help protect him.

After Dickerson's father went to the School Board, the district hired a school-insurance professional to investigate the harassment claims. The investigator concluded that Dickerson indeed had been harassed but didn't recommend any change in policy, the suit says.

Dickerson's father said he hopes the lawsuit will force changes that protect other students from what his son endured.

"I turned my son over to the care of the school district so they could give him a quality education, and they failed him," he said.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com

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