The JACL issued the following statement on May 21.
The Japanese American Citizens League is deeply troubled by the circumstances and investigation surrounding the tragic death of Emilie Grace Olsen, a Chinese American student at Fairfield Middle School in Fairfield Township, Ohio.
In a letter to parents in December 2014, Fairfield superintendent Paul Otten stated that bullying was not a factor in Emilie’s death. Since then, administrators for the Fairfield City Schools have failed to provide investigative information about the tragedy; instead, they have railed against so-called rumors and misinformation, particularly in the aftermath of a May 13, 2015 investigative report by WCPO Television, which disclosed that emails, school reports, and a social media account did indicate that Emilie was bullied.
According to the television report, Emilie’s father repeatedly contacted the school to complain about his daughter’s plight and even requested changes to her schedule to avoid being in classes with certain students, which the school accommodated. However, it appears that the bullying persisted and Emilie took her own life on Dec. 11, 2014.
The Fairfield City Schools have an obligation to explain their conclusion that Emilie was not bullied, just as they had an obligation to provide a safe environment for Emilie and all students.
School bullying is an unfortunate reality. JACL is very concerned by the extent of bullying directed at Asian American students. A 2013 report titled “One Step Forward, Half a Step Back,” issued by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and The Sikh Coalition, found that 50 percent of Asian students report being racially harassed at their schools.
The report also found that Asian students are bullied at a rate 20 percent higher than whites and 10 percent higher than other groups of color. Although the report focused on New York City schools, its implications may extend to all schools with Asian American student populations.
The demographics of the Fairfield City Schools show a racial breakdown of 86.7 percent white, 9 percent black, and 1.6 percent Asian. Clearly, students of color can be made to feel isolated and vulnerable.
There is a need for Fairfield administrators to reflect on Emilie’s tragic death in the context of policies and rules about bullying that are integrated into the culture of their schools, and programs about race, diversity, and multiculturalism that are embedded in a curriculum that reaches every student, teacher, and administrator.
My son is half Japanese. When he was bullied after we returned to the US from Japan, I immediately took him to our local karate dojo and signed him up. He wasn’t bullied anymore after that. (I don’t think he had to “use” his karate on the other kids; just the fact that he was taking karate was enough to give him the confidence he needed to stand up to the white kids at school. (We lived in a rural area, and there were only one or two Asian kids in his school.)