Federal lawsuit claims Madison County school officials turned blind eye to racism

Jermaine Horton/ the art of confidence

Macie Hill, one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against Madison County school officials, participates in an art project designed to restore her confidence after she was harassed.  

Sisters Moriah and Macie Hill have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Madison County school district, which claims they were repeatedly bullied and harassed over their race, and that school administrators were aware but did nothing to stop it, according to court documents.

The Madison County Board of Education, Superintendent David Gilliam, former Madison Southern principal Brandon Watkins and four others are named in the suit that was filed in August but was moved to a federal court docket last week.

The lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of damages and claims Watkins and other school administrators failed to act in several racist incidents toward the girls which “resulted in the condoning of a racially hostile environment at Madison Southern High School.”

The suit claims, as a result of the school failing to address the racist incidents, the Hills have suffered “embarrassment and humiliation as well as a lack of equal educational opportunities” and that Watkins and Gilliam “acted in concert to aid Caucasian students to harass and threaten” the girls soley due to their race.

The lawsuit details several incidents of harassment to both Moriah, who graduated last year from Madison Southern and is currently a freshman at Asbury University, and her sister Macie, who is currently a junior at the school.

The Hill’s attorney, Edward Dove of Lexington, said he took the case because he felt the Hills showed great “courage and determination” in addressing the racist bullying and hostile atmosphere at their school.

“They are both very strong women. They are great students and I think the lackadaisical attitude of the school system in regards to these incidents was a great disservice to them and their right to an education. They should’ve been supported,” Dove said in a phone interview with The Register.

The suit claims Madison Southern has a history of racial tension which has been largely ignored by school administrators and which may have led to an incident of cyber bullying and harassment in May against Macie.

According to the court documents and interviews with The Register, Macie received messages from peers who used the N-word at least 300 times in early May on Snapchat. Hundreds of other exchanges on social media also revealed racial slurs and threats specifically targeting the younger girl, according to the lawsuit.

At the time, Watkins released a statement regarding the incident on the school’s Facebook page, describing it as “a terrible and unacceptable incident that happened on social media this week.”

“This incident includes behavior that does not and will not be representative of our school or community. As a school and a district, it simply will NOT be tolerated,” the post said.

Later that week, four arrests were made in connection to the incident, although school administrators declined to identify them or provide additional details about the incident.

Public Information Officer Barry Manley of the Berea Police Department confirmed to The Register in May, that two juveniles and two adults had been charged with harassing communications.

Those four people are identified in the lawsuit as defendants.

As some of the defendants might still be juveniles, The Register will only identify them by the initials R. K, D. C., D.D, and C. C.

The allegations of harassment go far beyond racist messages sent over the internet.

After the older sister found the N-word scratched into a bathroom stall door, she and her father went to Watkins to ask that it be removed, but the slur remained in place for another eight months, the suit states.

The suit also alleges Macie was called a racial slur and brought it to the attention of her teachers, but the instructor “shrugged off her concerns by insinuating it was not a big deal.”

Further, the filing also claims school administrators continually turned a blind eye to complaints that some students were regularly coming to school dressed in clothing that featured Confederate symbols, which violates the school’s dress code.

After repeated attempts to have teachers do something about the violations, Moriah took it upon herself to have a conversation with a student that was wearing a hat with a Confederate flag and explained how it was offensive to her.

According to the suit, the student agreed to not wear the hat again, but instead wore a sweatshirt the next day with the flag on it.

The filing claims Moriah once again reached out to a teacher and Watkins to intervene, but the teacher told the older sister she was being “dramatic” and Watkins claimed there was nothing he could do.

The Hills also tried to organize a school-wide assembly during Black History Month, but was denied by Madison Southern school officials and was told they could only read a short statement during morning announcements, the lawsuit states.

Another incident detailed in the lawsuit alleges a Madison Southern teacher openly mocked a Black minister during a lecture in front of Macie.

The filing states when the Hills tried to discuss the racial atmosphere at the high school with Watkins, the former principal “justified the students’ conduct when he stated that they are simply uneducated.”

The lawsuit also alleges Gilliam told the Hill’s parents “he would welcome a friendly lawsuit” when they spoke with him about their concerns in February.

In its response to the suit, the school district denies the Hills’ allegations saying “these Defendants acted in good faith, without malice, and within the scope of their duties as a public entity. These Defendants, as a public entity, are not liable for the acts or omission to act while exercising reasonable due care in the execution of any law, public duty, or responsibility.”

Madison County Schools Communication Director Erin Stewart said the school system could not comment on the suit when reached by The Register on Monday.

Jerry Gilbert, legal representative for the school district, could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Moriah and Macie's mother, Susan, said she hoped the lawsuit would shed light on the racial atmosphere of the school.

“We are just hoping to reach a successful outcome. One that protects our children and other minorities. We hope that we can possibly keep incidents like what our children have experienced happening again to others,” she said.

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