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Published in Print: July 8, 1998, as District Agrees To Protect Gay Students

District Agrees To Protect Gay Students

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Following a complaint from a gay student who said he endured two years of abuse by other students, the Fayetteville, Ark., school district has signed an agreement with the federal Department of Education to crack down on sexual harassment.

Gay-rights activists hailed the district's voluntary settlement with the department's office for civil rights as one of the first times that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 was invoked in a case involving sexual harassment targeted at a homosexual student.

"School principals who question whether sexual harassment of gay students is illegal will learn a big lesson from this breakthrough," said David S. Buckel, a lawyer with the New York City-based Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex, including sexual harassment, in schools receiving federal funds. In written guidance on sexual harassment issued last year, the Education Department said that general anti-gay discrimination was not covered by Title IX, but that harassment "of a sexual nature" directed at gay students would be.

Mr. Buckel said the guidance was important because gay students often face harassment that is sexual in nature.

"Adolescent boys are the biggest source of anti-gay bigotry, and they usually show their ignorance and hatred in sexual terms," he said.

Rodger Murphey, a spokesman for the OCR, emphasized that the guidance prohibits sexual harassment against any student.

"We don't try to determine whether the [targeted] student was gay or not," he said.

No Liability

The Fayetteville case involves 17-year-old William Wagner, a gay student who alleged he endured taunts and other forms of abuse throughout 1995 and 1996 while he was in grades 8 through 10.

His parents' repeated complaints to school officials were handled ineffectively, Mr. Buckel said.

In 1996, Mr. Wagner was beaten by several students and suffered a broken nose and damage to his kidneys. Two students were convicted of battery. Mr. Wagner left his school early last year.

His family filed a complaint with the OCR in January 1997. On June 8, district Superintendent Bobby C. New signed a "commitment to resolve" the complaint.

The agreement says the 7,600-student district admits no liability but must hold sexual-harassment workshops for teachers and students beginning this fall; take disciplinary steps against any student "reported and confirmed to have engaged in sexually harassing behavior"; and report its progress to the Education Department.

District officials could not be reached for comment last week.

Vol. 17, Issue 42, Page 1&JPS

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