The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana has filed a lawsuit against Westfield Washington Schools after a former WWS student was allegedly subjected to multiple instances of racist bullying.
According to a press release from the ACLU, the student, a minor identified as S.J., was a seventh-grader at Westfield Middle School during the 2019-20 school year. S.J. was one of “very few” Black students in her class. The press release stated the alleged bullying included “statements regarding her facial features, explicit comparisons to a monkey, questions regarding whether S.J. was attracted to orangutans and the routine use of the ‘n-word.’”
A formal complaint from the S.J.’s parents, Anthony and Brandi Johnson, stated racist abuse was reported to school administrators on numerous occasions. The complaint stated that although administrators expressed sympathy, they failed to take reasonable measures to protect the student.
Anthony and Brandi Johnson said they first notified administrators after S.J. was harassed on Dec. 11, 2019, by a fellow seventh grader, referenced in the complaint as Student A. Student A allegedly harassed S.J. in the school hallways and intentionally coughed in her face multiple times and directed racist language toward her. S.J.’s parents left a voicemail for WMS Principal Mike Hall and received a return call from Assistant Principal Valerie Love, to whom they reported the incident.
According to the formal complaint filed by the Johnsons, Love informed the Johnsons that the school had used Student A’s interaction with S.J. as a “teachable moment” and unspecified disciplinary consequences had been imposed against Student A. The Johnsons were unaware of what those consequences were, but they said they learned Student A was neither suspended nor expelled. He continued to attend classes with S.J. and also was often in the vicinity of S.J.’s locker.
On or about Feb. 3, 2020, Student A again allegedly harassed S.J. in the school hallway. According to the complaint, “Student A stated to S.J. that he was strong and that she was weak. He further informed S.J. that he had access to guns and that he visits the shooting range. Based on their past interactions, S.J. and her family believe that Student A’s statements on this occasion were racially motivated or were the result of retaliation against S.J. for reporting his earlier abuse to school officials. Shortly after the incident, S.J. also learned from one of the few other Black students at the Middle School that Student A had made similar threats to other Black students.”
The Johnsons again notified Love of the interaction via email, and Love told the Johnsons that the school administration had been made aware of the threats and a police report was filed with the Westfield Police Dept.
However, the Johnsons stated when they later reached out to the WPD, they learned a complaint had not been filed.
“In correspondence in July 2020, after S.J. and her family separately reached out to the Westfield Police Department through an attorney, the Westfield City Attorney informed S.J. and her family that the July correspondence from S.J. and her family ‘was the first time that the [Westfield] Police Department was made aware of any incident involving [S.J.] at the Westfield Middle School’ and that no report had been ‘made to the school resource officer regarding [S.J.],’” the complaint stated.
Following several meetings with the school administration, S.J. allegedly continued to be abused. In early March 2020, S.J.’s class watched a film about Sudan, in which several Sudanese people were featured. According to the complaint by S.J.’s family, S.J.’s class members allegedly compared S.J.’s physical features to the Sudanese people in the video.
“At least half a dozen students, and likely more, participated in this racist abuse of S.J., which caused S.J. to cry in class,” the complaint stated.
S.J.’s experience as a WWS culminated on May 5, 2020, when she attended a Zoom lesson and students allegedly began to chant the ‘N-word’ at her during the class. When S.J.’s mother Brandi Johnson appeared on S.J.’s screen while she was checking on her daughter, the complaint stated the students then began to chant the ‘N-word’ at her, too. When Brandi Johnson emailed the district to alert them to the racist bullying, then-Supt. Sherry Grate assured her that the school was conducting an investigation. Brandi Johnson requested S.J. be excused for the remainder of the school year without an adverse effect on her grades, to which the complaint stated the school agreed.
The complaint stated that the Johnsons moved from Westfield in 2020 and S.J. began attending a private school with a more diverse student body in the fall of 2021.
“The racist abuse suffered by S.J. during the 2019-20 school year was discriminatory and was so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it deprived S.J. of any meaningful or equal access to educational benefits and opportunities,” the complaint stated. “As a result of the actions or inactions of the School Corporation and its administrators, S.J. has suffered substantial emotional and other damages. Her parents have been forced to incur substantial financial damages, including payments for S.J. to receive therapy, to relocate, and to attend school other than through the School Corporation.”
The plaintiffs are requesting a trial by jury and that the defendant, WWS, award the plaintiffs monetary damages, the amount of which was not specified in the complaint.
“We 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,” Anthony and Brandi Johnson stated. “You have to speak up about any kind of discrimination in order to make a change and to protect each other.”
WWS issued a statement Nov. 4 about the lawsuit:
“Though we are aware of a lawsuit filed against Westfield Washington Schools, we have yet to be served,” Supt. Paul Kaiser stated in a press release sent by WWS. “Westfield Washington Schools has always strived to be a place where all students can achieve academic and social success. We’ve put an emphasis on cultivating an environment where all students feel safe, seen and valued. We are committed to creating a positive and welcoming environment for every student who walks through our halls. For every one of our district families, we will continue on this journey to expand our perspectives and work together to make our school district a place where every student knows they belong and can achieve their goals.”
The school district did not provide further comment.
ACLU is representing the Johnson family in court. To read the full complaint, visit aclu-in.org/sites/default/files/field_documents/complaint_-_filed_2.pdf.