Nearly a year after 13-year-old Emilie Olsen was found dead of an apparent suicide, her parents have filed a federal lawsuit against the Fairfield County school district in Ohio alleging that the school didn’t do enough to stop the bullying that led to Emilie’s death.
Emilie, who was adopted at the age of 9 months from China, grew up in Ohio where she faced bullying to severe that she suffered chronic depression and anxiety. The bullying included name-calling, physical abuse, and at least one incident where a girl reportedly followed Emilie into a bathroom with a razor and told her to kill herself. In addition, school bullies engaged in cyber-bullying; they created a social media account that subjected Emilie to slut-shaming and homophobic slurs.
In an online chat to a friend, Emilie reportedly said:
“I’m causing all this trouble on Earth. And people look at me like I’m a freak and I’m tired of it,” she wrote to a fellow student at Fairfield Middle School in an online chat. “It hurts when you have to explain yourself to people you don’t know or like. You feel them judging you, staring at you, talking about you.
Although Emilie’s parents repeatedly raised the issue of Emilie’s bullying to school administrators, they did little about the problem. School administrators allegedly failed to discipline Emilie’s bullies, nor did they encourage Emilie to see a counselor or encourage access to resources to help her cope with the emotional impact of her chronic bullying, even when they were made aware of the lasting problem. Instead, after Emilie’s death, administrators initially denied that Emilie was a victim of bullying and abuse, until this fact became undeniable through independent investigation.
Now Emilie’s parents have filed a federal lawsuit charging Emilie’s school violated her civil rights in failing to protect her from an environment of unending hostility. The lawsuit further argues that the bullying that Emilie faced was explicitly racialized, spurred on in part by Emilie’s identity as an Chinese American in a county that is made up of nearly 90% White residents.
1 in 5 Asian American students are victims of bullying with over half of those victims saying that their abuse occurred in school classrooms, the highest incidence of in-class bullying reported for any race or ethnic group. In certain areas, incidence of bullying is markedly higher for Asian American youth, particularly among Sikh Americans and Muslim Americans. In addition, more Asian American students report that their race was a focal point of their bullying, compared to children of other races.
Earlier this year, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders launched #ActToChange, a nationwide anti-bullying campaign focused on raising awareness to stop the peer-to-peer violence that targets our Asian American young people, and other youth of colour, in schoolyards and classrooms. The campaign was created in partnership with the Sikh Coalition and the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans in Entertainment. Speaking to NBC News:
“Education is a right for everybody, but bullying has become a civil rights issue because it’s constantly interfering with their education,” Aasees Kaur, a Sikh Coalition advocate, told NBC News. “[Students] have to find that ounce of courage to stand up against bullying and keep going back [to school] because it just takes one voice to really change things.”
We expect that our nation’s schools should be places of safety, support and learning for our children, but for Asian American children as well as many children of colour, classrooms are places of hostility and violence. For Emilie, the classroom was a place of abuse, and those who should have been charged with her protection apparently did nothing to keep her safe.
Our children deserve so much better.