ELMA — A black female student who graduated from Elma High School last year says the Elma School District is in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act for allowing an environment of prejudice and racism to continue unfettered in the hallways of the high school, prompting her to forgo the last weeks of her senior year out of fear and anger.
Cassie Hall filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court at Tacoma alleging breaches of Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act, accusing the district and Elma High Principal Kevin Acuff of denying Hall’s “fundamental right to have an education free from bigotry and discriminatory intimidation, and to enjoy the same educational opportunities as her Caucasian peers.”
She says her teen years “have been punctuated by numerous instances of racial intolerance, physical and psychological intimidation, humiliation, and cruelty based on nothing more than the color of her skin.”
Attorneys for the district deny the allegations.
While school district officials said they couldn’t comment directly about the lawsuit, they say the administration has teamed with teachers and students over the past few years to improve tolerance on campus.
Both Superintendent Howard King and Acuff defended the school’s reputation. They say a number of initiatives and programs have been implemented in recent years to tackle the issue of bullying and intolerance, including a diversity committee implemented by Acuff last year to give advice.
“I think there are some really good things going on here,” King said. “I can’t say we’re the best in the world, but I’m feeling very comfortable. … I’m really proud of what’s going on here. I really am.”
Cassie Hall and her family could not be reached for comment on the suit, which was filed in October of last year. Hall’s attorney, Christopher Lundberg of Portland, declined to comment on the litigation.
The suit alleges the racial harassment began in Hall’s freshman year and continued throughout her academic career at Elma High. The school district apparently investigated the incidents with reports on file. The Vidette has filed a public records request to get the reports.
The lawsuit alleges that numerous incidents took place throughout Hall’s academic life at the school.
She says she was consistently referred to by the N-word, as well as “porch monkey” and other racist terms.
At one point, Hall allegedly reported to an acting vice principal that another student had called her a “n——-.” The administrator, who was acting vice principal that day, allegedly dismissed Hall’s concerns, telling her that she didn’t think the student “meant to say that.”
After leaving a class, the suit alleges that Hall was sitting with her boyfriend in the hallway. A group of students passed. At that point, a white student who was also sitting in the hallway, said loudly “I smell a n——-.” In response, another aforementioned student looked at Hall, laughed, and said, “No, they usually smell like fried chicken, watermelon and grape Kool Aid.”
The lawsuit states that in order to avoid “physically threatening racial harassment by the upper classmen, Miss Hall began to have a male friend walk with her between classes. If she could find no male friend available to escort her, Miss Hall would walk outside the school in order to avoid passing these students in the halls.”
The lawsuit states that a teacher allowed the class to watch an episode of “The Maury Povich Show” dealing with the topic of paternity claims. The captions at the bottom of the screen showed that one of the guests on the show asked, “Who’s my baby’s daddy?” A female student in the class said, “That will be Cassie — she won’t know who her baby’s daddy is.” A male student added, “Yep — that will be Cassie.” These comments were made loudly enough for the teacher and para-educator to hear, but Hall’s attorneys say they let the behavior slide.
During an English class, the lawsuit alleges that the class was assigned a poem about the Jim Crow laws. A male student who had allegedly made previous racist comments, pointedly told Miss Hall that “black people shouldn’t talk because the white man owns them.”
During an economics class, in which the class was presented with raw cotton, the suit alleges another male student asked Hall, “Hey, Cassie, do your hands hurt from picking this?” The rest of the class heard the comment and laughed out loud, according to the suit.
In a history class, students allegedly did a Nazi-styled salute during a video of Adolf Hitler. One of Hall’s peers allegedly told her he couldn’t talk to her because he was a member of the KKK. Another student looked at Cassie and told her that “black people should be slaves.” Hall’s mother, Debra Hall, reported this incident to Acuff, according to the suit, which claims the principal investigated the comment made by the student, who admitted to it. During that investigation, Acuff found that same student was carrying a knife and had a hat emblazoned with a swastika, the suit says. While Acuff suspended the student, he allegedly allowed him to return to the school shortly thereafter on the sole condition that he write a letter of apology to Cassie Hall.
In an English class, a student allegedly complained to a teacher that it wasn’t fair that an African-American student who had broken a school running record should have her name on the school record board because “she’s black and has an extra bone in her foot.” Rather than correct the student’s misinformed racist stereotype, the suit claims, the teacher allegedly told the class that it was “not an extra bone,” but rather an “extra muscle.” The teacher went on to state that “slaves were born to be fast” and that “you don’t see white wide receivers,” according to court records.
In May of 2013, the suit says, Hall’s economics teacher showed the class a movie called “The Power of One.” The movie, released in 1992 to critical acclaim and awards, is about apartheid in South Africa. While scenes of black Africans being repeatedly beaten in boxing matches were shown, several of Hall’s Caucasian peers became visibly excited, making comments such as “hit him harder.” Hall says she reported the incident and nothing happened.
The suit claims that the discrimination “set forth was profoundly distressing to Cassie Hall. As a result of the most recent incidents, she was unable to return to her school to complete her senior year, but rather finished her course work from home.”
The lawsuit states that twice during Hall’s academic career at the high school, there were issues involving “hit lists.” During Hall’s freshman year, the phrase “Kill all n——-” was painted on the walls and listed the names of approximately six male black students.
In her sophomore year, a hit-list was circulated among students at the school. This hit-list was in the form of a letter that stated “Kill all “n——-” and then named all of the African-American students in the school. Hall and many others stayed home from school, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit says nothing was done.
But Acuff says the police were called and he went on Eagle TV, the public access television station, and spoke out about the incident.
“I ask you to imagine what it would be like if you were the one singled out — if you were the person that was threatened,” Acuff said in a copy of his speech obtained by The Vidette. “Imagine if it was your child, or your brother or sister. I am asking for help of the entire school to ferret out the person who wrote it so that they can be held accountable for their action.”
“We will not allow this prejudice to continue in our school,” he said at the time. “Please stand with me against this hate. We learn, we love and we grow together when we stand against injustice to our friends. … To those of you willing to stand in opposition to this crime against human dignity, I applaud you, I thank you and I stand with you. To those who would promote or encourage this hateful behavior, I will work to remove you from our community. Our community believes in equality, justice and the democratic ideals that founded our country.”
Acuff called on the help of the student body “to devise a plan to combat the ignorant, small-minded and criminal behavior.”
The student body has since taken Acuff’s call for leadership on their own.
Student body president and senior Mackenzie Miller said she’s seen substantial change in the environment on campus. Miller was part of a student-led effort to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. at a special assembly this month. Miller noted that students talked during the assembly about the challenges of overcoming prejudice and bullying.
“It’s changed a lot from my freshman year to my senior year and I’ve seen a lot. I’ve noticed a huge improvement,” Miller said. “It’s cool to see the improvement. I think it’s improved a lot, at least since I’ve been in high school. The atmosphere has just done a complete 180. I think it’s definitely come around.”
Miller acknowledges that it’s impossible to stop all bullying and intolerance, but she believes great strides have been made among the student body.
“Some people intend to bully people, because they are like that, and you’re never going to stop all of that,” she said. “And I think some people don’t understand that what they say hurts and what they do hurts.”
School officials also mentioned numerous avenues in which the school has worked to increase tolerance and decrease bullying at the school, citing assemblies, speakers and staff training and setting up an anonymous email tip line among their examples. The school has also instituted “Challenge Day,” which is a day to promote tolerance and empathy among staff and students and comes from a Concord, Calif.-based organization. The program came into place two years ago, although student leadership teacher Christi Kershaw said the idea had been batted around for at least six years.
More than 300 students, staff and community members participated in the program earlier this month, which challenged participants to “Be the Change” by first noticing, then choosing and finally acting on the need for positive change.
“Challenge Day opened everyone’s eyes on what people face day-to-day. I believe students will treat each other better and with kindness because they are more aware of life’s challenges,” Shelby Felder, EHS Eagle peer leader, said about the event.
“One of the things that we feel strongly about is that when we want to change the culture of our school … we look to our leadership students,” Acuff said.
“These changes don’t come overnight. You have to create an environment where people are receptive to change. It sounds simple, but it ain’t simple,” King added. “It’s an ongoing thing. You can’t just say you’re going to do it, then it’s done.”