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Gay Student's Suit Against Wis. District Reinstated

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A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit that accuses a Wisconsin school district of failing to protect a gay student from abuse by other students.

The lawsuit against the Ashland, Wis., schools is among the first suits that seek to hold school officials responsible for abuse of homosexual students.

The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit says the district could be held liable for violating the rights of Jamie S. Nabozny, who claims he endured years of torment from classmates because of his homosexuality.

Mr. Nabozny alleges that Ashland school officials failed to respond adequately to his complaints about frequent physical and verbal abuse while in junior and senior high school.

One school official, the suit claims, told Mr. Nabozny to expect harassment if he was going to be openly gay in high school. (Please see "Gay Students Press Abuse Claims Against Districts," April 24, 1996.)

A federal district judge in Madison, Wis., ruled last year in favor of the school district, saying school officials had no "affirmative duty to protect [Mr. Nabozny] from private violence."

'Sufficient Evidence'

Mr. Nabozny appealed, and in a unanimous July 31 ruling, a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based appeals court reinstated the lawsuit, Nabozny v. Podlesny.

U.S. Senior Circuit Judge Jesse E. Eshbach wrote that evidence in the case supports Mr. Nabozny's claim that school officials violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

The judge said it was clear that Mr. Nabozny's complaints of physical and verbal abuse were treated differently from complaints by girls about sex discrimination.

"What is more, Nabozny introduced sufficient evidence to show that the discriminatory treatment was motivated by the defendants' disapproval of Nabozny's sexual orientation, including statements that Nabozny should expect to be harassed because he is gay," the opinion said.

Mr. Nabozny lost his appeal on the issue of whether school officials violated his 14th Amendment right to due process of law. The 7th Circuit panel upheld the district court's rejection of his due-process claims.

Strong Message

Nevertheless, the ruling was a victory for Mr. Nabozny and for other gay students, said David Buckel, a lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund. The New York City-based gay civil rights organization is representing Mr. Nabozny.

"The message this sends out to school principals is that they have to address anti-gay abuse in the same way they address other abuse of students," Mr. Buckel said.

Timothy J. Yanacheck, the lawyer for the Ashland district, said the school board was considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court but would more likely seek a trial in federal district court in Madison.

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