The American Civil Liberties Union and an Atlanta-based law firm filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Friday on behalf of three Black high school students and a recent graduate of the Effingham County School District in southeast Georgia, accusing the district and four administrators of allowing a “longstanding and ongoing environment of racial discrimination” in which Black students’ complaints of racial animosity perpetrated by white students and staff were swept “under the rug.”
The 35-page complaint, filed in Savannah federal court, states that the plaintiffs “have been subject to heinous racial attacks, including the rampant use of derogatory language like ‘n****r,’ ‘porch monkey,’ and ‘monkey.’ They have had to share spaces at school with students dressed as Adolf Hitler and have watched classmates mockingly reenact the killing of George Floyd. These attacks and actions—which have been largely ignored by Defendants—have created a hostile learning environment for Plaintiffs in their schools and extracurricular activities.”
The case comes five months after a similar lawsuit filed by ECSD students who alleged “deliberate indifference” to racial animosity and an unconstitutional dress code that prohibited the wearing of any clothes bearing Black Lives Matter messaging. The three plaintiffs in that case later dropped their lawsuit after the ACLU stepped in to represent them, telling a judge that it planned to file a “new and more comprehensive” lawsuit at a later date.
Four school officials are named in the new lawsuit as defendants in addition to the district itself: ECSD superintendent Yancy Ford, South Effingham High School principal Torian White, Effingham County High School principal Amie Dickerson and Effingham College and Career Academy principal Brigid Nesmith.
GPB requested comment Friday from the defendants, emailing each individual a copy of the lawsuit. Ford responded later that day, writing:
“We understand that a lawsuit was filed against the District, but we have not been served with the lawsuit and have not had an opportunity to review the allegations. Once we have been served, a response to the allegations will be filed in accordance with the rules and procedures of the court. Regardless of the details alleged, the Effingham County School District does not tolerate racism or discrimination whatsoever, and I will continue to work toward ensuring all students in the District are able to enjoy a learning environment free from negative impacts of racial bias, prejudice, and discrimination.”
As of publication Monday, GPB had not received a response from White, Dickerson or Nesmith.
In addition to alleging acts of overt racial animosity, the students describe in their lawsuit a “disparate implementation” of ECSD’s dress codes and disciplinary policies, which they wrote further contribute to a hostile learning environment.
“When applying the district-wide dress code, which is promulgated by the Effingham County Board of Education, school officials permit the wearing of Confederate flag apparel on days during which students are allowed to wear clothing other than uniforms—all while placing the Confederate flag in prominent areas throughout [Effingham County High School]—but simultaneously prohibit the wearing of ‘Black Lives Matter’ apparel or related thematic messaging on those same occasions,” the lawsuit states.
The plaintiffs allege that they posted on social media about acts of racial animosity that they personally experienced or witnessed, after which the defendants sought to discipline them or remove the posts, while at the same time failing to discipline the white students who perpetrated the acts.
The lawsuit also includes as plaintiffs the mother of two of the current students, as well as the mother of the third current student. All plaintiffs are listed by initials.
In a separate legal motion, the plaintiffs’ attorneys ask the court to allow all plaintiffs to proceed in the case using either pseudonyms or pseudonymous initials.
“Considering the allegations regarding the pervasive and severe discrimination Plaintiffs have been subjected to, and the lack of meaningful responses by Defendants, the threat of retaliation or retribution against Plaintiffs for filing this Complaint is real, and they cannot reliably depend on ECSD officials for their protection,” the motion states. “Proceeding pseudonymously will provide Plaintiffs with needed privacy and security in a sensitive and delicate matter.”
They are seeking a jury trial and requesting that the court declare the defendants’ conduct as race discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act, and as violating the defendants’ federal rights to equal protection and free speech under the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.
They also ask that the court issue a permanent injunction requiring defendants to “meaningfully respond to the racist acts and environment within ECSD,” as well as to award monetary damages and to cover legal costs.
This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.