Group Asks Feds To Investigate Ky. School District

Jul 9, 2013

RUSSELL, Ky.-- A civil rights organization has asked a pair of federal agencies to investigate the Russell Independent Schools in eastern Kentucky over allegations that a 14-year-old Asian-American student has been repeatedly harassed.

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

AALDEF attorney Thomas Mariadason told The Independent that school officials have an obligation to stop any alleged harassment once they've been notified of it.

"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," Mariadason said.

School district attorney Michael Schmidt of Paintsville says the district hasn't been given a fair opportunity to investigate and address the complaints.

"It's unclear to me what really happened, if anything," Schmidt said.

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.

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 and mocked for observing Russian Orthodox prayer rituals.

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

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.