Two East Aurora students say they were bullied because of race
By Kalyn Belsha firstname.lastname@example.org May 8, 2013 6:04PM
Updated: May 9, 2013 4:38PM
AURORA — The allegations of two 14-year-old East Aurora female students who say they were bullied because of their race have prompted a federal civil rights investigation at the school district.
Brooke Whitted, a Northbrook-based lawyer who is representing both students pro bono, said Wednesday that his clients were referred to him independently and that the students did not know one another prior to the investigation. Both girls had previously reported their bullying incidents to their principals, he said.
He was struck that the students, who he described as “bright and sensitive,” said they were being bullied because of their race — one is Filipino, one is white — at separate schools. The girls, who previously attended Cowherd and Waldo middle schools, have since transferred to Simmons Middle.
Similar incidents in more than one building are “usually an indication of a sick district,” he said.
So Whitted filed complaints on behalf of the students with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which can investigate discrimination based on protected statuses such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age.
According to two March letters from the Office for Civil Rights, one student alleges she was bullied for four months, the other for three years, and that the district knew and “failed to respond appropriately.”
The Office for Civil Rights has opened both cases for investigation, but such an investigation does not mean the complaint has merit, the letter said. The Office for Civil Rights’ job is to act as a “neutral fact-finder.”
Whitted said his clients hope a federal investigation will prompt district-wide changes that will “fix the climate” of East Aurora.
Adam Harding, a spokesman for East Aurora, declined to comment on the investigation, but said that the district has policies in place to protect students from bullying and there are protocols that staff must follow when incidents of bullying occur.
According to district policy, students are prohibited from all forms of “bullying whether verbal, physical, or visual, that affects the tangible benefits of education, that unreasonably interferes with a student’s educational performance, or that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment.”
This includes “name-calling, using derogatory slurs, stalking, causing psychological harm, threatening or causing physical harm.”
District policy states that students are encouraged to report incidents of bullying and staff are expected to report bullying to the principal, who is expected to “take measures to prevent harassment of students” such as harassment awareness training for staff and students and deciding “when extra supervision and precaution should be taken.”
According to a letter from Whitted to Superintendent Jerome Roberts dated Oct. 23, 2012, one of the now 14-year-old students who attended Cowherd was “picked on exclusively by Hispanic kids because she is not Mexican” from August to December 2012.
The letter says the student was called names such as “whore” and “slut,” and that students pushed her and pulled her hair.
The student was hospitalized for cutting and suicidal thoughts “as a direct result of the endless taunting and harassment,” the letter said. The lawyer alleged the district did not do enough to eradicate the bullying and make sure the student wasn’t targeted again.
In another letter to Roberts dated Dec. 10, 2012, Whitted said the other now 14-year-old student who attended Waldo was bullied physically and discriminated against for three years, which caused her to become “depressed and anxious about going to school” and fear for her safety.
In a letter to the Office for Civil Rights dated Jan. 16, Whitted said the former Waldo student was “terrified” to leave her home because of verbal and physical bullying. She couldn’t eat, lost sleep and had nightmares, he said. In another letter to the Office for Civil Rights dated Dec. 10, 2012, he said she was discriminated against because she was “one of the few white students” at Waldo, which has a mostly Hispanic and black student body.
“Undeniably, something must be done to eliminate the toxic environment within all of District 131’s buildings,” Whitted wrote in the Jan. 16 letter.
Reached by phone Wednesday, the former Waldo student, Anna Forth, said she felt she needed to speak up to help other students who are being bullied.
“Nobody should have to go through what I had to go through,” she said.
Her mother, Sandy Forth, said her daughter wants to “fight for the ones who can’t fight” and that “she wants to make a difference” by prompting changes in the system.
“Kids can’t be afraid to tell the authorities what they’re going through,” the mother said.
Reached by phone Wednesday, the mother of the former Cowherd student declined to comment.
Last week, Bernard Weiler, an attorney for East Aurora, told The Beacon-News that district personnel are “cooperating fully and totally” with the federal investigation and have provided both documents and interviews.
Weiler said fact-finding investigations such as this one last until federal attorneys and investigators “determine that action needs to be taken.”
Whitted said the investigation will be “an extended process” that could last up to two years. It’s likely investigators will review student and personnel files, look at past harassment trainings, interview students and look for other students who may have been bullied, he said.
If the investigation results in a “corrective action plan,” Whitted said, the district may have to improve bullying policies and staff training, or risk losing its federal funding.