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2018 graduate Camille Sturdivant files civil lawsuit against district, others

2018 graduate and former Dazzler Camille Sturdivant filed a civil lawsuit against Blue Valley Unified School District, BVNW principal Amy Pressly, former Dazzler coach Carley Fine and Cottonwood Point teacher and Dazzler mother Katie Porter, citing her civil rights were violated.

Anna Cowden, Editor-in-chief

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Stating her civil rights, protected by the the 14th Amendment, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were violated during her time as a Dazzler dance team member, 2018 graduate Camille Sturdivant filed a lawsuit against the Blue Valley School District, principal Amy Pressly, former Dazzler coach Carley Fine and Cottonwood Point Elementary teacher and Dazzler mother Katie Porter.

Since BVNWnews broke the news of the lawsuit Monday night, students and alumni have echoed their support for Sturdivant while some question the validity of the lawsuit.

Being one of two black dancers on the 2017-18 BVNW dance team, the lawsuit states she suffered mistreatment and discrimination because of her skin color.

The lawsuit states 2014 BVNW graduate and choreographer Kevin Murakami excluded Sturdivant from a contemporary dance because “he said her skin was too dark and the audience would look at her and not the other dancers.” The lawsuit also alleges Murakami told Sturdivant that “her skin color clashed with the color of the costumes.”

Sturdivant’s parents, Melodie and Mike, approached Pressly in Sept. 2017, according to the suit, to complain that Sturdivant was excluded from the dance. The lawsuit alleges Pressly told the parents that Fine and Murakami could pick whoever they wanted to perform in the dances.

While Sturdivant was assisting Fine with the dance team May 1, 2018, the lawsuit alleges Fine gave Sturdivant her phone to play the music for the team. The lawsuit states Sturdivant saw text messages between Murakami and Fine, and felt “sickened” after seeing them. The texts discuss how Sturdivant made the University of Missouri’s dance team, Golden Girls, for the following school year.

Here is the text conversation between Murakami and Fine, according to the lawsuit:

Murakami: “I can’t believe Maggie didn’t make it again. I’m heart broken”.

Fine: “AND CAMILLE (Sturdivant) MADE MENS. I can’t talk about it.”

Murakami: “THAT DOESN’T MAKE SENSE. I’m so mad.”

Fine: “It actually makes my stomach hurt.

Murakami: haha (emoji)

Fine: “Bc she’s f***ing (asterisks inserted by BVNWnews) black. I hate that”

Murakami: “me too”

Murakami and Fine have not responded to BVNWnews’ requests for comment.

The lawsuit says Melodie and Mike Sturdivant met with principal Amy Pressly later that day to discuss the text messages. Fine’s employment was terminated the following day, according to the lawsuit. Pressly declined, due to the pending litigation, to comment after BVNWnews asked for an interview.

The lawsuit states Fine was ordered to not have any contact with the Dazzlers after her termination. The other black Dazzler and current sophomore at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Okla., Armani Williams, said the Dazzler dancers and parents went against Pressly’s demands to not have contact with Fine by having secret meetings and dinners with Fine, including a team dinner at the Plaza with Fine that excluded Sturdivant.

According to the lawsuit, Pressly was told the Dazzlers ignored the decision they were to not have contact with Fine. Pressly told Sturdivant’s parents nothing could be done about the dinners because the dinners were not school-sanctioned events, the lawsuit says.

The suit alleges the dinners were in fact school-sanctioned events because Cottonwood Point Elementary School teacher and mother of Dazzler Katie Porter attended.

Husky Headlines, the BVNW broadcast show, interviewed Fine about Sturdivant being the lone senior on the dance team in the broadcast production’s Senior Show that aired in April, 2018.

Fine told Husky Headlines Sturdivant is the “ideal senior to any coach.”

“Even though she’s not a captain, she’s definitely a leader,” Fine told the broadcast show. “She has a leadership role in the team. I think every kid feels that. She plays a good role as in she isn’t bossy. She doesn’t tell people what to do, but at the same time people know to look up to her and admire her.'”

Fine is a 2014 BVNW graduate and the Director at Perception Dance Company in Lenexa, Kan. The lawsuit says Fine was hired without completing any undergraduate or graduate degrees, certifications, or training.

Fine was also given no training on handling issues such as discrimination, retaliation and harassment, according to the lawsuit.

Following the rumors in the community and angry comments on social media, Blue Valley Superintendent Todd White addressed the lawsuit in an email to BVNW families Friday:

“An African-American student experienced an incident of racial hostility due to the actions of a former coach. We are sorry for this injustice. We also want you to know, when the Blue Valley Northwest administration became aware of any racially motivated conduct, immediate action was taken, including separation of employment with the coach,” the email said.

White also said in the email that “respectful and meaningful relationships between staff and students are at the heart of Blue Valley’s culture,” and “Discrimination of any kind has no place here.”

According to the lawsuit, during one of the performances in the Dazzlers’ Spring Show on May 3 and 4, all of the Dazzlers except for Sturdivant and Williams wore purple ribbons on their costumes with the initials “CF” for Carley Fine. Williams told BVNWnews, despite what the lawsuit claims, she did wear the ribbon in support of Fine. Williams said she was unaware of why Fine was absent from the team. Williams also said she does not remember the ribbon having Fine’s initials on it. Photos obtained by BVNWnews of dance team members those nights don’t appear to show a CF on the ribbons the girls were wearing.

Since learning of Sturdivant’s plans for filing the lawsuit, Williams said she regrets her decision to wear the ribbon.

“None of us knew the real reason,” Williams said. “That’s why I wore the ribbon because I thought it was something else. After hearing the accusations, I actually regret wearing the ribbon because I don’t care for any discrimination on anyone’s part.”

Shortly after news of the lawsuit was announced on BVNWnews’ Twitter account, an online petition was created by 2014 BVNW alumni Tyler Johnson and Emily Mahapatra. The petition had received 241 responses by early Sunday afternoon.

Johnson said he was not surprised after learning about the lawsuit since he, during his time at BVNW, said he received derogatory and racist comments because of his African ancestry.

“In my experience [racism] was very overt and pretty biting in that I was always a fairly well-off student,” Johnson said. “I was typically in the advanced classes and for some reason the combination of that and my complexion always put a lot of focus and attention on me so I often got a lot of comments like ‘You’re smart for a black person,’ or ‘You’re the only smart black person.’”

The petition calls for concrete, transparent diversity and inclusion training among BVNW staff and students.

“While it is clear that there needs to be a greater focus on diversity and inclusion training for the staff, the intervention must also extend to the student body, as the staff identified in the legal filing are former students of BVNW who were products of this environment,” the petition states.

BVNWnews contacted Blue Valley Director of Communications Kaci Brutto concerning Blue Valley’s diversity and sensitivity training for faculty and staff. When we have the information, it will be added.

PDF versions of the lawsuit were spread throughout the student body, and students posted messages on social media urging others to wear articles of black clothing on Friday in solidarity with Sturdivant.

While junior Jacob Van Ness said he did not wear black because he was not informed about the blackout, he said he wishes he could see the community make bigger strides toward making change other than wearing black.

“Outside of our school and from a community perspective I feel like nobody other than our school sees that,” Van Ness said.

Black students comprised four percent of the Northwest population in the 2017-18 school year, according to the Kansas Department of Education.

Williams said she hopes this lawsuit will be a teaching moment to the white students in Blue Valley, because she believes many students don’t realize their white privilege or are not educated about racism.

A lot of students at Blue Valley in general don’t even know what white privilege is,” Williams said. “They don’t know that racism actually exists and they’re not educated on it because they’re sheltered in this community of Overland Park.”

Pressly emailed the BVNW community Thursday to inform them she would be taking personal and  family leave. According to the email, Pressly had planned ahead of time to take a leave of absence because her daughter is expected to give birth to twins next week. Pressly is taking additional time to care for herself following the death of her husband, Mark, in October.

“It is hard for me to be away from my Northwest family but I know that I need to focus on taking care of myself and being there for my family,” Pressly said in the email.

Fine and Murakami have released statements to local news outlets.

Fine’s statement:

The federal lawsuit filed against the Blue Valley School District also names the Blue Valley Northwest High School principal, a Blue Valley teacher and me. The focus of most of the actions in the lawsuit is on the school district and several of its employees, but my name has been mentioned in news coverage that has been shared widely on social media.

Because I am named, I am anxiously looking forward to defending myself. It’s tempting to answer accusations, especially when so many of them are false and/or misleading. My legal team, however, insists we defend our case in a courtroom, not on the internet or the evening news.

I have dedicated myself to helping our dancers achieve their goals. This includes not only working with them on their dance skills and routines, but also working with them outside the studio. In no way would I ever want to cause pain, distress or concern.

Getting only one side of a story paints an unattractive picture; it’s not the whole story though. The evidence will clear up so many of the lingering questions and shocking allegations surrounding this lawsuit, and I look forward to that.

Thank you to all who have reached out to me, offering your support. So many of you have reminded me that, in this country, the accused has a right to the presumption of innocence.

Please know how seriously I take this lawsuit, and please understand why I have to remain silent for now.

Murakami’s statement:

I used to read stories on the web or watch them on television and take them at face value; it’s the news, so it must be true, right? I assumed that if someone filed a civil lawsuit, they were certainly telling the truth.

But after being mentioned in a federal civil rights lawsuit as the choreographer who allegedly told a dancer she was “too dark” to dance in the Blue Valley School District, I learned that anyone can say anything in a lawsuit. Not only will it be immediately accepted as complete truth, but it will also be reported worldwide as the truth.

I never said Camille Sturdivant’s skin was too dark. I never joked that she was too dark. I never even referenced the color of her skin. This is made up, and it’s absolute nonsense. And this is what made up the headlines that flashed around the world in recent days.

Be clear: I’m half Japanese and also gay. My family has experienced racism, so I was raised to be open and to appreciate all races, genders, sexual orientations and cultures. I am not a racist, and I never commented on Camille’s skin color. These accusations are untrue and are extremely damaging.

I choreographed, taught and supported Camille. I treated her the same as I treated all of the dancers with whom I work… with respect.

To those who have contacted me with words of support in the past five days? Thank you. And to those who are taking the time to read my statement? Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to set the record straight.

 

Additional reporting by staff member Danya Radhi

We will be updating this story with additional information as we gather it.

9 Comments

9 Responses to “2018 graduate Camille Sturdivant files civil lawsuit against district, others”

  1. Lou Ann Thomas on January 21st, 2019 7:19 am

    This is some of the best, most balanced and thorough pieces of reporting I’ve read in a long time. You all did a great job and should feel proud of your efforts!

    Lou Ann Thomas

  2. AMY AMY on January 21st, 2019 10:38 am

    Nothing to say the article said it all.

  3. Al on January 22nd, 2019 9:55 pm

    This article was more informative, balanced, and well written than any article about this incident that could be found in the national papers.

  4. Katie on January 23rd, 2019 9:08 pm

    The texts seem damning. Can there really be a side to the story that justifies them?

  5. RICHARD DICKERSON on January 24th, 2019 12:23 pm

    How is the suit captioned? I’d like to see a copy of it

  6. Jacob on January 24th, 2019 1:16 pm

    This is an amazing piece, BVNW News. I did share 435 Magazine’s version, but I wish that I shared your article. Please continue to put out incredible work.

    Jacob Elyachar
    Class of 2007

  7. Cameron Hamm on January 24th, 2019 6:11 pm

    This was great reporting. Nice work!

    Class of 2015, former writer for BVNWNews.

  8. Jean Greer on February 5th, 2019 12:53 am

    If Sturdivant read racially discriminatory dialogue about her between Fine & Murakami on Fine’s cell phone that caused Fine to be terminated, how then is she (Sturdivant) lying or misinterpreted their conversation? Sturdivant did not deserve their mistreatment! It is so evil to mistreat someone because of their skin color. Sturdivant is a stunning beauty! Seems like jealousy to me!!!

  9. Camille on March 21st, 2019 11:58 am

    She better get that coin! She is doing the right thing, racial discrimination is a big topic and I’m glad she is doing something about it!!!!

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2018 graduate Camille Sturdivant files civil lawsuit against district, others