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Former Westfield student sues school district over lack of protection from racist bullying

Posted at 3:15 PM, Nov 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-05 09:01:51-04

WESTFIELD — A former middle school student and her parents are suing Westfield Washington Schools, alleging administrators failed to protect her from racist bullying by classmates.

The 16-page lawsuit filed Thursday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana says the 14-year-old girl identified as S.J. suffered racist abuse during the 2019-20 school year that was "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived S.J. of any meaningful or equal access to educational benefits and opportunities."

According to the lawsuit, the bullying included statements regarding the girl's facial features, comparisons to a monkey, questions about whether she was attracted to orangutans and "routine use of the n-word." The language was used in school hallways, before and after school and occasionally in the classroom, the lawsuit says.

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The complaint also alleges several students chanted the n-word at the girl while attendance was taken during a Zoom session after the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to be moved online.

"Under federal law, public schools have a duty to take reasonable measures to protect their students from pervasive race-based bullying,” Gavin M. Rose, ACLU of Indiana Senior Staff Attorney, said in a statement. “Westfield Middle School administrators failed to protect S.J. from abuse from her classmates, ultimately excluding her from access to a safe and equal learning experience."

WRTV has contacted Westfield Washington Schools for comment.

The girl was one of only a few Black students in her class during the 2019-20 school year in Westfield, where between 85-90% of the city's population is white, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says racist abuse was reported to school administrators on numerous occasions. It adds administrators offered sympathy, however, "they repeatedly failed to take reasonable measures to protect S.J. from continuing abuse."

Administrators claimed to have filed multiple police reports, but the lawsuit says the Westfield Police Department said it had no such records.

The girl attended an online school in eighth grade after her parents removed her from Westfield Middle School.

In June 2020, the girl's parents, Anthony and Brandi Johnson, spoke with WRTV's Stephanie Wade about the abuse. They said they had multiple conversations and meetings with school administrators, but the bullying never stopped.

"It's out of your control and you want to be there for your child and protect them, and I think that's what really hurts," Anthony Johnson told WRTV at the time.

In a statement regarding the lawsuit, the girl's parents said they "want to protect and make a change for the minority children and families in Westfield Washington School District, so that their families do not have to endure the hurt, disappointment and safety concerns we experienced."

Now-former Westfield Washington Schools superintendent Sherry Grate spoke about the situation in a June 2020 school board meeting and said the student's experience was "heartbreaking."

"Racism, intolerance and harassment of our students and staff will not be tolerated," Grate said last year.

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