ASHLAND, Ky. (WDRB) -- The father and daughter sobbing together in the Kyova 10 Theater in Cannonsburg, Ky. a few months back weren't just moved by Jackie Robinson's story in the film "42." They were remembering their own story.
Milena Clarke, age 14 and an adoptee of Asian Kazakh heritage, says she has been harassed because of her race for the better part of two years in the basketball program of the Russell Independent School District in far Eastern Kentucky. Her father, Terry Clarke, after receiving what they felt was an unsatisfactory response from school and district officials, and amid what the daughter called a tense and worsening situation, has called for outside assistance.
On Friday, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) filed two complaints, one with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice and another with the Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education.
They say that Milena has been harassed by teammates and fellow students at Russell Middle School, and that some of the abuse took place with the knowledge of coaches, not only through her basketball activities but in the classroom and school in general.
The AALDEF is asking federal civil rights officials to investigate Clarke's story.
Milena just wants things to get better, and she wants other minorities in Russell to avoid the treatment she says caused her to lose sleep, to lose weight, and even to consider giving up basketball. She wears No. 42 on her AAU basketball teams to honor Jackie Robinson, and her attorneys call her a kindred spirit with the man who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier.
Terry Clarke said he thought his daughter might catch some grief over being a University of Louisville fan. He said he never thought her race would be an issue. But Milena describes the treatment she has received from teammates as "awful." She said it began in seventh grade, after she played her sixth grade season without incident.
"I was called a 'chubby chink,'" Milena said. "They would say, 'you are a slow Asian, you shouldn't be playing.' They would call me a 'gook,' and I had to look that up. I didn't know what that meant."
In an interview with WDRB, Milena described racially motivated harassment in basketball practice, in the classroom, in school hallways and the cafeteria. She said she took her complaints to coaches, who initially told her that she needed to "take it," and to "be a leader." In fact, the complaint states that these admonitions were delivered in front of her alleged harassers "in what appears to be a tactic to embarrass Milena and discourage her future reporting." Eventually, teammates would make fun of her Russian Orthodox religion, and coaches would tell her not to pray in her native Russian tongue, which she and her parents took pains for her to learn to give her an appreciation of her native culture.
When she played with an AAU team in nearby Huntington, W.Va., she said her problems worsened. Some members of that team, including some African Americans, came to watch her play in the Russell gym. Milena alleges that her teammates' attitude toward her hardened, and she was the subject of ridicule that included the N-word and suggestive taunts.
And in its complaints filed Wednesday, the AALDEF claims that each time Terry Clarke tried to intervene on his daughter's behalf, she faced retaliatory measures, increased harassment or decreased playing time on the court.
"It's been a harrowing experience for her for two years," said Thomas Mariadason, attorney for the AALDEF. "And what's remarkable is that in spite of all that, she's probably the best player in her grade at Russell. . . . She's really a remarkable young woman. . . . We thought that this case was particularly egregious on the facts, not only because of the type of harassment she was experiencing, but because of the response of the administration at Russell."
Officials from the Russell Independent School system have not returned messages asking for a response to Friday's filing. Kentucky High School Athletic Association Communications Director Joe Angolia said that the KHSAA is "aware of the situation, but not involved in the process. To our knowledge it is being handled at the local level."
Milena lives in Ashland, but attends Russell schools because of her father's connection to the school district.
"I have a lot of guilt, because the reason she goes to Russell (schools) is me," Terry Clarke said. "My dad is in the Hall of Fame there. . . . I thought that's one place she could be safe. And I really couldn't believe this. So I thought, I'll bring this to the attention of people. And I talked to everyone I could think to talk to, and I had hope longer than I should have. … Russell meant a lot to me, and the fact that they did that to her, I was really confused too."
Milena says her grades suffered, that she became depressed and that she lost interest in studying Russian.
"Almost every day they would call me names," she said. "They would flick me. They would poke me. They would shove me in halls. That's just how it went, just every day."
Clarke said her daily school routine was one of looking over her shoulder, trying to stay away from girls harassing her in the hallway or sitting alone in the cafeteria. She said she requested a change of seats in one of her classes this past March because of the abuse.
"I just wanted to fit in," Milena said. "I wanted to be like them. When they were saying those things, I didn't know what to do. I felt like if I could have been white, this wouldn't have been going on. Those are the kinds of thoughts that were going on in my head."
The complaint alleges that school officials were notified of the abuse continually during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, including the teams' coaches, the district's athletic director, a principal, school board member and even the district superintendent.
"Each time, Mr. Clarke was either assured that RISD was concerned with the situation and would address it, or rebuffed and dismissed for making allegations that RISD deemed overstated," the complaint alleges.
On April 18, AALDEF sent a letter to the Russell school district advising it of its responsibility to address the harassment. The district did not respond to the letter, but after Terry Clarke brought the complaint to the attention of the Kentucky Department of Education and the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, called Clarke separately and told him that an investigation would commence "immediately." More than two weeks after that, Clarke received a request for him and his daughter to be interviewed by two administrators within the Russell school system. He told school officials that an investigator with no ties to the school system was essential.
In the interim, Russell schools finished a report acknowledging that "a lack of understanding on the coaching staff of when to move a complaint to an administrator," but failing to acknowledge responsibility for reports of harassment to be addressed. The AALDEF says Russell Independent Schools have not responded to its prior communications.
"It has been hell," Terry Clarke said. "Not that I am a skinny man, but I lost 30 pounds during this season. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I just became consumed with it, because I felt completely powerless, because it wasn't me, it was someone I loved more than myself, and people I trusted to take care of her . . . I felt guilt and responsibility and I don't think I dealt with it very well. I brought Milena tapes from sports psychologists on getting your confidence up, the relaxed athlete. . . . I got her a personal trainer, and I kept thinking, maybe they'll see the light."
Milena is scheduled to begin classes as a freshman at Russell High School this summer.
She said she was hurt and embarrassed at the slurs she endured, but when her Russell teammates began to make fun of her African American friends, she began to want to fight back.
"That did strike something in me," she said. "It made me mad that they would say something about them, and I was hurt that they would say that. I thought they might at least be a little more respectful. . . . It just won't stop. I knew we needed to do something about it."
Watching the Jackie Robinson story with her father, Milena said, "gave me hope."
"It made me remember a lot of things they've done," she said. "It was an eye opener of what happened to me and how bad it really was."
As for what the outcome of all this will be, neither would guess. Both say they are worried about further retaliation now that the story is becoming more public.
"I'd like to have a time machine, actually," Terry Clarke said. "Put the genie back in the bottle. I'm very discouraged by the responses, so I don't know what's going to happen. . . . I want Milena to be able to get a good education and play basketball, because I think it's very important for her, and fortunate that someone young can find something they love. And I don't want her to have to give that up just because of her race, and the race of her friends. I don't know how that can happen, but that's the outcome that I want."
Milena said, "I just hope something gets worked out so I don't have to go through it again. Just be at peace and know that I'm accepted."