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A Day in Court

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A federal appeals court has reinstated a gay student's lawsuit that accuses a Wisconsin public school district of failing to protect him from abuse by other students. It is one of the first lawsuits that seek to hold school officials responsible for harassment of homosexual youngsters.

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 Nabozny, who claims he endured years of torment from classmates because of his homosexuality. Nabozny alleges that school officials in Ashland, Wisconsin, 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 Nabozny to expect harassment if he was going to be openly gay in high school. ("Can Schools Do More To Protect Gays?" August 1996.)

A federal district judge in Madison, Wisconsin, ruled last year without a trial in favor of the school system, saying school officials had no "affirmative duty to protect [Nabozny] from private violence." Nabozny appealed, and in a unanimous July 31 ruling, a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based appeals court sent the case back for trail.

U.S. Senior Circuit Judge Jesse Eshbach wrote that evidence in the case supports Nabozny's claim that school officials violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. The judge said it was clear that the student's complaints of physical and verbal abuse were treated differently than complaints by girls about sex discrimination.

"What is more," the judge wrote, "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 ruling is a victory for gay students, said David Buckel, a lawyer for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the New York City-based civil rights group that is representing Nabozny. "The message this sends out to school principals," he says, "is that they have to address anti-gay abuse in the same way they address other abuse of students."

Timothy Yanacheck, lawyer for the Ashland district, said the school board was considering an appeal of the latest ruling but would more likely argue its case at trial in Madison.

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