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
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.