Bullied student awarded $100,000 from school district

Jan 27 2012 - 11:40am

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Russell Dickerson, Jr., Russell Dickerson, III and ACLU-WA Executive Director Kathleen Taylor at a 12-07-10 press conference in Seattle, Washington.
Russell Dickerson, Jr., Russell Dickerson, III and ACLU-WA Executive Director Kathleen Taylor at a 12-07-10 press conference in Seattle, Washington.

SEATTLE -- As people grow older and look back at years spent in high school, they can often find pleasant memories lurking there -- of lifelong friends they made, or of fun times they had.

When Russell Dickerson III looks back, there's none of that -- just mostly sadness.

The 20-year-old black student, who said he endured relentless bullying and harassment by fellow students from the time he entered junior high until he graduated from high school, has reached a $100,000 settlement with the Aberdeen School District, where it happened.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the district on Dickerson's behalf slightly more than a year ago, will be awarded $35,000 in legal fees.

In the lawsuit Dickerson said he was fondled, stripped of his clothes in the hallway and spat on, because of his race and because students perceived him to be gay.

Through it all, school officials were made aware of the harassment, but did little or nothing to stop it, he said. Fellow students hurled a litany of gay slurs and variations of the "N" word at him, taping the derogatory words to his back, his backpack and his locker.

Dickerson said Thursday the settlement represents some closure for him.

"It's a relief in some ways. I don't think I can ever forget what happened to me, but I can certainly try to move on," said Dickerson, who still lives in Aberdeen.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, claimed the district's failure to protect Dickerson created an environment that no student should be forced to endure, violating his federal and state civil rights. Dickerson's sexual orientation was not disclosed.

Aberdeen Superintendent Thomas Opstad said the district continues to try to make its schools as safe as possible. The district has brought in speakers to talk about bullying, and there are groups of students working to improve the climate in schools, said Opstad, who has been there two years.

"This is an issue that is nationwide and we want to make sure we are doing all we can to continue to address the ongoing challenges that all schools face," Opstad said.

Dickerson, who graduated in 2009 from Aberdeen High School, said the bullying he endured made going to school a daily nightmare.

In 2007, 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.

He said he'll never forget any of that, but he's working to put it behind him.

He has taken online college courses toward a degree in information technology, but took a break from it and plans to return later this year.

He said he has not a single friend from middle or high school and has not been in contact with any of his former schoolmates.

He'd like to take a little vacation then eventually move away -- possibly to Missouri, where his family had roots.

"I know this is something I have to work through," he said. "I do know I'm not planning on attending any reunion. I want to put it behind me and I'm crawling out of it."

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(c)2012 The Seattle Times

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