An alleged campaign of racial harassment against a preteen Gladstone middle school student has touched off a federal Civil Rights Act lawsuit against the school district.
The unidentified girl of African and Haitian descent alleges her white schoolmates spent all of last school year calling her racial epithets, pushing her around physically, and insulting her based on the color of her skin.
The girl's lawyer, Jill Odell, says the harassment continued despite multiple attempts by the girl and her parents to make teachers and administrators intervene.
"My client, a young African American girl, was -- it's hard to describe what she was exposed to last year in middle school – from the first day of school to the last day of school," Odell told The Skanner News.
"Students taunted her, called her the n-word, pushed her into lockers, spit into her food, told her she put mayonnaise in her hair, told her that she smelled bad because she was Black – the things you'd think students don't do anymore that occurred to my client all throughout the school year."
The girl, now 13, has transferred to a different school district for this school year.
Gladstone School Superintendent Bob Stewart did not return calls for comment Tuesday.
The suit charges that the district and a handful of teachers at Walter L. Kraxberger Middle School violated civil rights laws prohibiting discrimination by a public school which receives federal funding.
"She repeatedly went to the principal and the teachers and asked for help and they didn't do anything about it," Odell said.
State laws and regulations require schools to put processes in place to try to prevent discrimination in the schools, she said, but "they did not follow those guidelines at all."
When the girl's mother went to the district to complain and asked for a complaint form, staff didn't even have a complaint form for her to fill out, Odell said.
"That's just basic state law, they didn't even comply at that level," she said. "They gave her a scrap piece of paper and told her she could write on the back of it."
According to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, public schools that receive financial assistance from the federal government cannot discriminate based on race, sex and other factors.
"Personally, I grew up in the Deep South in a very segregated town, and the facts of this case even shock me," Odell said. It sounds like something that would have happened in the 60s, in the Deep South.
"You don't think this happens anymore."
District statistics show Kraxberger Middle School's student body is 79 percent White, and one percent African American – lower than the statewide demographic that shows three percent of middle school students are Black.
Kraxberger students post above-average test scores, and the school includes 38 percent free or reduced-cost lunch students.
"Because there was no reaction from teachers, little if any discipline imposed on the students, the students were emboldened to continue the discrimination," Odell said.
"I think the message, unfortunately, is that racism is well and alive in our community. And we all need to do our part in getting rid of racism."