Civil Rights Group Files Racial Harassment Complaint on behalf of Asian Middle School Basketball Player
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights urging both federal agencies to investigate the racial harassment suffered by 14-year-old Milena Clarke, an Asian American basketball player and student in Kentucky’s Russell Independent School District (RISD). Milena, a recent graduate of Russell Middle School, has been the target of severe, persistent, and ongoing racial harassment in RISD’s Red Devils basketball program since July 2011.
“At some point, I couldn’t go a day without hearing them call me a ‘chink’ or something similar,” said Milena. “It has been a constant part of my life on the team and in school.”
Milena is an Asian-Kazakh adoptee from Almaty, Kazakhstan, and one of only a handful of Asian or minority students in the RISD school system. She is also the only racial minority on most of the RISD basketball teams on which she has played. Her teammates singled her out and hurled incessant racial epithets at her during games, practices, and in school hallways. She was called “Russian chink,” “gook,” and “commie,” and mocked for observing Russian Orthodox prayer rituals.
The harassment also included regular slurs about African American teammates and friends Milena had made through the local spring/summer travel ball circuit. When her travel ball teammates and coaches visited the Russell High School gymnasium to observe games, Milena’s RISD teammates called her a “nigger lover” and asked provocative questions about why she socialized with African Americans.
“It’s disheartening that these girls were apparently permitted to refer to our coaches and players in such a manner,” said travel team coach Kyle Sheffield, who coached Milena during the summer travel ball circuit, “It’s just mind boggling that in this day and age they would have taunted Milena for her race and for her friendships with African Americans.”
A 2009 United States Department of Justice student survey found that Asian American students are the most likely of all racial groups to report verbal abuse relating to their race, ethnicity, or religion.
Despite Milena’s family’s numerous attempts to report these incidents to RISD coaches and officials, the harassment has continued unchecked for the past two years, traumatizing Milena and frustrating her parents. AALDEF’s complaint asserts that RISD was deliberately indifferent to the ongoing harassment, and that RISD coaches and officials took steps to penalize Milena and her family for speaking up, including reducing her playing time and threatening to deny her future basketball opportunities.
“School officials have an obligation to stop harassment once they’re notified of it,” said AALDEF staff attorney Thomas Mariadason. “We are asking the federal authorities to intervene to stop the harassment and investigate the family’s claims. We believe that they must ensure that students like Milena can not only participate in school programs free of harassment, but also safely raise their concerns when they’re victims of the type of behavior at issue here.”
Towards the end of this school year, Milena’s harassers told her that “Asians can’t play basketball.” Milena begs to differ. The 5′8″ guard/forward has earned all-star honors and accolades in both school and AAU leagues, and plans to continue to work hard at her game and in school. “I’m stepping forward because I shouldn’t be treated like this, and because I want to make sure any minorities who come to Russell don’t experience this in the future.” Read the complaints filed with the Justice Department and the Department of Education.