Pride and Prejudice

By David Ruenzel — April 01, 1999 24 min read
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Gay and lesbian teenagers in a small California town are suing school officials for failing to protect them from student harassment. But the suit also indicts the big American high school.

As Alana Flores remembers it, the harassment started in the fall of her sophomore year, not long after she entered Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, California. To this day, she doesn’t know what made her a target. She had never told anyone that she was a lesbian. That wouldn’t happen until her senior year. And she only came out then, she says, because there was no reason not to. By that point, she’d already endured two years of anti-gay abuse from other students, much of it in the presence of teachers, who, she claims, did little to intervene. “I was subject to daily and fierce unrelenting harassment,” Flores says, “so I just threw my hands into the air and said, ‘Yeah, I’m gay.’”

But it wasn’t until the spring of 1998, nine months after her high school graduation, that Flores decided to fight back. At the urging of a gay teacher at a local middle school, she and four other former and current Live Oak students filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school district. In their complaint, the students say they experienced “pervasive, severe, and unwelcome” verbal and physical anti-gay harassment on a near daily basis. School and district officials, they say, were well aware of what was going on and yet “repeatedly failed to take appropriate and necessary measures to stop [it].”

Although other school districts have faced similar sexual harassment lawsuits in recent years, the number of plaintiffs in the Morgan Hill case-there are now six-makes it the largest. Like the other cases, the suit raises key questions about the obligation of teachers and administrators to respond to charges of student harassment. But perhaps more important, it offers clear evidence that the culture of the large American high school is at least partly to blame for the abuse the plaintiffs endured. Reformers have railed against such schools for years: Big schools impede learning, they argue, small schools are better. As the Morgan Hill case makes clear, however, the debate over school size is not just about academics. The plaintiffs contend that the sheer size of Live Oak actually contributed to the incivility, prejudice, and harassment they experienced. A dismal collection of low-lying buildings, the school is horribly overcrowded, with more than 2,000 students in grades 10 through 12. The resulting climate, the students say, breeds division and cliques, a kind of pack mentality that can turn school into a hostile, even dangerous, place for students who don’t fit in.

Flores, who is now 19 and attending a local college, never dreamed her high school years would culminate in a lawsuit. Although she suffered because of the threats and taunts she endured during her three years at Live Oak, she had almost convinced herself that the abuse was simply part of the normal high school experience. “I thought that was just the way it was in high school, that prejudices could develop toward anyone, even someone popular,” Flores tells me. “High school is not an especially kind place.”

Because Flores is the only plaintiff named in the lawsuit-the other five chose to remain anonymous-much of the publicity surrounding the case has focused on her. In some ways, she is an unlikely person to be at the center of the storm. A slim, dark-haired woman who outlines her case with a measured, meticulous air, Flores was a high achiever in high school-both an honor-roll student and an accomplished dancer and actress. One teacher remembers her as “a pretty powerful person with lots of connections.” Flores describes herself as “a nice person who hung out with preppies, jocks, all different types.” But these friendships did not protect her from a pattern of escalating harassment and abuse.

At first, the needling was relatively innocuous, Flores says. “I had a short haircut, so kids would say, ‘You have a dyke cut.’ Even from the teacher, I’d hear, ‘Will the boy in the back please stand up?’”

But during the late fall of that first year at Live Oak, someone began inserting notes into her locker that said, “Die, dyke bitch.” Then the taunting began, with kids yelling things like “faggot dyke” at her from across the school’s central quad. One day, she opened her locker and found a pornographic picture of bound and gagged women tagged with the words, “Die, die, die.” A short time later, another picture appeared in her locker, this one of a woman masturbating with the words “Dyke bitches fuck off” written in a corner.

Flores says that when she showed the pictures to an assistant principal, the woman asked her matter of factly if she was a lesbian. “What does that matter?” Flores asked. The administrator, she says, sent her back to class.

A few days later, a student handed her a picture of a man and woman engaged in sexual intercourse and said, “This is how you guys should be doing it, fag.” Flores reported the incident to the principal. Though the perpetrator was suspended for two days, the lawsuit claims that another male student who had harassed a heterosexual student received a tougher punishment: a five-day suspension.

Flores can only guess why she was singled out for such abuse. “I was unsure about my sexuality in 8th and 9th grade and still very shaky about being gay in the 10th,” she says. “Maybe it’s because I have strong views. I’ve always spoken out for gays and lesbians, for Latinos, for those who get trampled on in our society. Still, I really have no idea why I was treated with such hostility.”

Teachers regularly witnessed the harassment, Flores says, but they did nothing about it. “Say ‘nigger’ and you’ll get busted; call someone a ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke,’ and teachers will turn away or refer to it as common teasing,” she says. “Most just don’t want the hassle; others will acknowledge that they are homophobic, that they just don’t like gays and lesbians. A few are sympathetic but afraid to take a stand. Once, during a dance performance, the student body chanted, ‘faggot, faggot.’ The dance teacher gave us a hug after the performance, but no one did anything at the time. People are afraid to do anything that shows tolerance.”

One day in her math class, Flores says, a male student called her a “fucking dyke” and made explicit sexual references. The boy kept repeating the word “faggot,” and Flores told him that she didn’t like it. At that point, she says, the math teacher intervened. “Why don’t you like that word?” the teacher asked her. “Is it because you’re gay?”

As Flores tells it, the indifference of school officials was worse than the abuse. “Taking these things to the administrators and having them, my protectors, say, ‘Go back to class and stop talking about it’ affected me more than anything. I learned that teachers won’t do anything for you if they don’t get any backup from the administration.”

In January 1998, a group of Flores’ friends, acting on their own initiative, contacted an openly gay Morgan Hill middle school teacher named Ron Schmidt and told him what had happened to Flores. Schmidt, a soft-spoken father of two and former seminarian who had struggled with his sexuality before publicly declaring that he was gay, has long battled with district officials over gay and lesbian issues. During his 15 years with the district, he had heard several variations of the same story: harassment followed by administrative stonewalling or denial, followed by escalated harassment. The 62-year-old teacher feared that eventually some kid in the district was going to get seriously hurt.

As Schmidt listened to Flores’ friends, he couldn’t help but think of Jamie Nabozny, a young gay man who in 1996 sued his former Wisconsin school district for failing to protect him against harassment and physical abuse. Eventually, Nabozny won the suit and $900,000 in damages. When he heard about Flores, Schmidt says, something clicked: “That’s what we need to do: Sue the district and win. That’s the only way to make the administration face up to the dangerous situation gay and lesbian kids are in.”

When Schmidt and Flores met face to face, that was his message. Flores says she had never considered a lawsuit. “I only began to think about what I had gone through the summer after graduation when people who knew my story told me that I had been violated, stripped of my rights,” she says. “Then, after talking to Schmidt, I decided that I could force the school district to change.”

But Flores didn’t want to go it alone. She approached a gay friend who also had endured years of harassment at Live Oak, and together the two decided to file suit. Through a friend, Schmidt put the students in touch with San Jose lawyer Diane Ritchie, who, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, agreed to represent the teenagers.

As the team prepared its case, three other students heard about the suit and asked Ritchie if they could join. (The sixth plaintiff signed on later.)

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, names as defendants Morgan Hill superintendent Carolyn McKennan, district school board members, a former principal, and a number of assistant principals. It alleges that these individuals failed to protect the plaintiffs from years of anti-gay harassment in violation of federal and state law and the district’s own sexual harassment policy. Among other claims, the suit argues that the defendants violated the students’ constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and privacy, as well as their right to be free from sexual harassment, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

In addition, the suit alleges that the defendants failed to provide a “safe, secure, and peaceful public school,” as guaranteed by the California Constitution. The students are seeking unspecified monetary damages, and they want the district to take steps to ensure the safety of all students.

“The Live Oak student newspaper said this lawsuit made me greedy,” Flores says, “that I was trying to take away books and rulers from students. But I feel that I’m giving the kids at the school something. I’m saying that the district can’t go through one semester of letting a few fools make others feel less than human.”

The stories the other Morgan Hill plaintiffs tell are consistent with Flores’ account. Slurs, threats, and violence regularly disrupted their years at Live Oak. But the worst part, several say, was not the abuse itself but the emotional deadness it induced. Their high school years contained little joy, no hint of youthful anticipation. “High school is your entire life while you’re there,” explains one plaintiff I’ll call Elizabeth Evers. “There’s really nothing outside of it. If high school is a nightmare, your life pretty much is, too.”

A junior college student with the edgy air of someone who has stayed up all night drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, Evers missed some 115 classes in her junior and senior years at Live Oak. During those two years, students taunted her, knocked her books from her hands, and kicked the back of her desk-anything to torment her. Some of the most constant abuse, she says, came from the football players’ girlfriends, who repeatedly threw food at her in the school cafeteria. Finally, just months shy of graduation, Evers dropped out. (She eventually earned her GED.)

Like Flores, Evers claims that the verbal and physical attacks bothered her less than the hands-off attitude of her teachers and administrators. Most of the time, she says, they re fused even to listen to her claims of harassment. “I’d try to explain to one administrator that I missed class on account of the abuse-sometimes I was afraid even to go to class-and he’d say that was a personal reason, and a personal reason couldn’t be valid. Other times, the secretary wouldn’t even let me arrange a meeting with an assistant principal.”

Evers’ account contains stories that are almost surreal in the alleged effrontery of administrators and teachers. Once, she says, a female assistant principal-the same one Flores tangled with-asked Evers if she’d ever had oral sex with girls. And her gym teacher, after hearing that Evers had seen the campy film Rocky Horror Picture Show with a group of friends, accused her of being in a lesbian cult.

Teachers regularly witnessed the harassment, Flores says, but they did nothing about it.

This kind of bizarre behavior, though, was more the exception than the rule. For the most part, teachers and school officials were simply indifferent to harassment. “Most of the teachers didn’t care or thought the students had brought the abuse upon themselves,” Evers says. “Some of the teachers had a grasp of what was going on but didn’t know how to respond. My psychology teacher, for instance, gave me a chance to explain myself to the class, as if I was the one who had to do the explaining. Later on, he told my brother that he remembered a lot of bad things had happened to me. But he couldn’t even remember my name.”

Several other former and current Live Oak students who aren’t party to the suit tell similar stories. Daphne Maurier, a former student who still lives in Morgan Hill with her husband and young daughter, says she was pelted with everything from food to a roll of tape when she helped form a gay, lesbian, and bisexual club at Live Oak in 1993. “The school was a nasty, rough place, more redneck than where I came from in Louisiana,” she says. Unlike the students in the case, Maurier says she received “great support” from several teachers who have since retired.

Noah Skeen, a Live Oak junior who proudly embraces his homosexuality and insists that I use his real name in this story, says that he was spit on and struck with apples during his sophomore year. Even now, he adds, he is routinely harassed in Spanish class. Every time he yawns or raises his hand, he says, students call him “queer” or “fag.”

“My teacher is sympathetic,” he tells me. “But she still won’t do anything about it.”

District officials declined to comment on the case or the students’ allegations for this story, citing the pending litigation. But when the suit was filed last year, superintendent McKennan told the San Francisco Chronicle that it had come as a complete surprise to her and the local school board. “The allegations are of grave concern to us,” she said. “We would not tolerate behavior that would make kids unsafe. It’s very disappointing to me that such an allegation would occur....We will vigorously investigate.”

This past fall, lawyers for the district tried to have the case dismissed, arguing that the students’ allegations did not meet the standards for a violation of federal law. On November 6, U.S. District Judge James Ware refused the request. The plaintiffs’ claims, Ware said, were substantial enough for the case to proceed. A jury trial is scheduled for September.

Morgan Hill is a community in flux, not quite country anymore but not quite suburb, either. Described by one long-term resident as a “feisty, frontier town in the midst of great change,” it is the kind of new American place where farmers in seed company hats rub shoulders with prosperous New Age techies at high school basketball games. Just 30 minutes south of San Jose on U.S. 101, the once rural community has been discovered by high-flying Silicon Valley commuters who have settled in expensive developments just down the road from farmers, ranchers, and field workers. Driving around Morgan Hill, you see shiny BMWs alongside pick-ups pasted with the Confederate flag, multi-gabled mansions sprouting up alongside fields dotted with stables and barns.

Though this tense mix of rural and suburban, traditional and modern, may be at the root of the harassment alleged by the students, the behavior detailed in the lawsuit is hardly unique to Morgan Hill. Indeed, numerous studies suggest anti-gay harassment and abuse is common in American education. In a recent survey of 500 community college students in the San Francisco Bay area, 32 percent of male respondents said they had verbally threatened homosexuals, and 18 percent said they had threatened or physically assaulted them. Last year, a group of students in Des Moines, Iowa, recorded hallway conversation at five area high schools and concluded that the average student heard about 25 anti-gay remarks every day.

Earlier this year, in Novato, California, a middle-class community about 100 miles north of Morgan Hill, a 17-year-old student named Adam Colton was severely beaten just outside of his high school, and the word “fag” was etched into his stomach and arms with a pen. It was the second time the senior had been beaten since announcing he was gay last fall. Colton said he’d been taunted and harassed at school many times between the two violent incidents.

“The experience at Live Oak is numbingly familiar,” says Kate Kendall, a lawyer for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, one of the groups representing the Morgan Hill plaintiffs. “The harassment and the ensuing indifference on the part of school officials is too often the norm. The classic response to harassment has always been, ‘boys will be boys,’ as if it’s just a routine part of adolescence. But now we have six students at one high school filing a lawsuit, which has never happened before. It indicates a tremendous problem.”

Grant Peterson, co-director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, has led more than 50 workshops for educators in the San Francisco area. He says the response of Morgan Hill educators to anti-gay behavior is the rule in U.S. high schools, not the exception. “Most teachers won’t say anything,” he says. “They think faggot-type put-downs are part of life. Or a lot of them say that there is so much going on in their classrooms that they really don’t hear derogatory comments. But it’s a funny thing; they all have improved hearing after the workshop.”

Meanwhile, Myron Kuon of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the nation’s oldest and largest gay legal-aid group, says the Morgan Hill lawsuit is one of six big cases his organization is following. “It’s unusual in the number of students involved, but pretty typical in how events have unfolded,” he says. “You’ve got name-calling, kids being shoved into lockers, the threats, and the faculty turning a blind eye.”

Such harassment, Kuon asserts, almost invariably escalates if the faculty does not quickly step in. Occasionally, the abuse can become sadistic and even life-threatening, he says, pointing to Jamie Nabozny, the Wisconsin student who was taunted, beaten, and in other ways abused during his middle school years. When Nabozny reported the various incidents, the principal allegedly told him that if he was openly gay then he had to expect “that kind of stuff.” During his 9th grade year, Nabozny was assaulted and urinated on in a school bathroom. Afterward, he said, the principal refused to see him. Later that year, a beating sent him to the hospital, and he left the school.

In response to the federal lawsuit Lambda filed on Nabozny’s behalf, the Wisconsin school district argued that it was not responsible for the students’ behavior. “Defendants did not raise the alleged persecutors in their homes to believe that harassment and assault are appropriate responses to someone perceived to be different,” district lawyers wrote in court papers. A jury disagreed, finding three administrators at fault for failing to protect Nabozny and awarding the plaintiff almost $1 million.

“The Nabozny case gave us a legal remedy,” Kuon says. “Students no longer have to sit and just take the abuse.”

Though many high school administrators concede that anti-gay slurs are common around their buildings, not all think they signify a severe underlying problem. Warren White, principal of Breed Junior High School in Lynn, Massachusetts, believes people are getting too worked up over what amounts to raw language. “Sure, the word ‘faggot’ pops up, and there is nothing you can do to stop it,” White says. “But it’s not meant to be an attack or innuendo. Kids will say, ‘You’re a faggot if you don’t get an ice cream for me.’ At our school, this issue isn’t even on the radar.”

“Look, kids are impressionable,” he adds, “and by constantly talking about sexual harassment and what it is, we may be making a problem where none exists. Kids will say, ‘You’re harassing me; that’s sexual harassment,’ because that’s what they’ve heard in the press. There’s enough pressure on us to raise test scores without worrying about this.”

Other administrators find anti-gay comments troubling. Chris Robbin, principal of Salem High School in Salem, New Jersey, insists such behavior is intolerable. “It’s unacceptable, and our teachers will immediately stop any instance of it, reporting it to the principal and counselor,” he says. “Racial and gay harassment-both are equally wrong.”

Lost in the debate over what actually happened at Live Oak is the important question of why it happened.

Gay and lesbian organizations and the media tend to attribute anti-gay harassment to “homophobia,” which they sometimes describe as a kind of opportunistic social disease. “Incidents of harassment and violence against gays and lesbians are escalating, partially as a consequence of extreme right-wing targeting designed to play on fear and ignorance,” says Kendall of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “The harassment is not happening in a vacuum but in the face of vitriolic anti-gay rhetoric coming from Trent Lott on down.”

Kids, Kendall notes, are coming out much earlier than they did a decade ago and are subject to what she terms “an unprecedented backlash.” She says the situation for gay students is particularly perilous in rural and semirural environments like Morgan Hill, where young people typically lack access to a supportive gay and lesbian community.

But the Live Oak plaintiffs do not, interestingly enough, talk of homophobia; in fact, they rarely even speak of hatred toward homosexuals, though they know it exists. Instead they refer, with a sort of sociological savvy, to the ills of their large, comprehensive high school. It is too big, they say, too impersonal. It spawns peer groups that can go to extremes in ostracizing and condemning others. “This is a big school,” one female plaintiff tells me. “People don’t understand how big it is. You’ve got people standing a foot away from you all day long, and every time you turn around someone is in your face.”

A sophomore boy sitting with us says, “The parents of this community don’t realize how many students are in this school. There’s no privacy, no space.”

“Which is one of the reasons there’s so much rudeness,” the girl adds.

One day, I sat on the edge of the Live Oak quad and watched the students jostle between classes. They were boisterous-and clearly at ease with insults and foul language. In this, they are no different than students at any American high school. What was different, though, was the flood of students. The school seemed to be bursting at the seams: Some 2,050 kids-60 percent of them white, 30 percent Latino-pushed their way to class with little room to move.

The idea that small schools are kinder, better places to learn than the traditional comprehensive school has become so prominent in the 1990s that it’s almost conventional wisdom.

Apparently, many citizens of Morgan Hill do not recognize the overcrowding and the ills it fosters. In November, they failed to pass a $70 million bond issue to build a new high school and renovate Live Oak. One of the reasons the vote failed, many say, is that a new school would break up Live Oak’s award-winning band.

Richard Knapp, who’s in his second year as principal of Live Oak, says the failure of the bond issue could mean 14 new portable classrooms, year-round schooling, or double sessions. “None of the alternatives-compared to a new high school-is educationally sound,” he says.

History teacher Becky Orahood, who sees 167 students each day in her five classes, says the size of the school makes it difficult for people to connect with one another. “As teachers, we’re isolated from much that goes on, both with the students and with one another,” she explains. “I don’t know a lot of people on the faculty here at all.”

The idea that small schools are kinder, better places to learn than the traditional comprehensive school has become so prominent in the 1990s that it’s almost conventional wisdom. Deborah Meier, founder of the famous Central Park East Secondary School in New York City, gave impetus to the small-schools movement in 1993 when she proclaimed that small schools are an “absolute prerequisite” for educating all students well. Only in small schools, she argued, could teachers and students collaborate in a way that fosters civility and good “habits of mind.”

Researcher Valerie Lee of the University of Michigan has examined the effects of school size and generally agrees. Although noting that “there are some bad small schools and good large ones,” she says that her research indicates that schools of 600 to 900 students are generally the best for learning. She quickly points out, though, that a school’s physical layout and structure are also important. “People talk about numbers,” she says, “but never mention space-the density of students. That’s a consideration people need to look at.”

In her controversial 1998 book The Nurture Assumption, author Judith Rich Harris argues that the influence of the peer group overwhelms any countermanding influence of the parents. This is particularly true in large high schools because, as she puts it, “numbers matter.” In a big high school, stratification is inevitable, she says, as students “form more social categories and divide up in more ways.” The result: rivalry and antagonism between student cliques.

“Once kids have split up into groups,” Harris writes, “it is extremely difficult to put them back together.”

After I left Morgan Hill, it became clear to me that if the gay teenagers I spoke with had anything in common, it was a fear of the pack. Noah Skeen said he has been spared beatings, thanks to his tall, burly size. Nevertheless, he avoids walking through groups of students whenever he can. “I don’t know their hatreds, what’s in their heads,” he said. “But I do know that people get swept up in crowds and that the larger the crowd the lower the IQ.”

Skeen said some kids treat him respectfully in one-on-one situations but become harassers once they rejoin the group. “Then they’re back with the crowd,” he said, “circling the bonfire.”

But the big high school and its cliques holds a more subtle danger, one that stems from the students’ desperate desire to feel like they be long. Elizabeth Evers, the lunchroom target of the football players’ girlfriends, revealed this in a startling fashion. Hers were some of the most gruesome stories of abuse that I heard. Yet as our talk was coming to an end, she suddenly announced, “I’m not gay.”

Surprised, I asked her to explain. Once, during her sophomore year, she had accompanied a male friend to a meeting for gay and lesbian students. That, she believes, led to the perception that she was a lesbian, which quickly became, in the minds of her peers, an established fact.

Though identifying with gay students made her a vulnerable target for harassment, it also gave her a group to belong to-a sizable group, too, according to Evers. “Maybe 10 percent to 20 percent of the kids here are gay or lesbian,” she told me. “I myself know 50 people who are.”

This figure sounded stunningly high-even gay activist organizations suggest a more modest 5 percent to 10 percent-so I asked Evers to account for it. “I don’t know,” she said, pausing for a moment to think. “Maybe some kids are so desperate about being outcasts that they fall in with the gay kids. You should stand as an individual, but in high school that’s hard to do. The gay and lesbian kids will accept you. And you’ll have something in common with them; you’ll all be persecuted for being gay and lesbian. It’s not the best situation, but it’s better than being alone.”

Last fall, one week after Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, was lashed to a fence outside of Laramie, Wyoming, and beaten to death, teacher Ron Schmidt went to see Morgan Hill superintendent Carolyn McKennan. Using the highly publicized slaying as his subtext, Schmidt accused the superintendent of doing nothing to improve what he believed was an extremely dangerous climate for gay and lesbian students at Live Oak and other schools in the district. According to Schmidt, McKennan told him that the school district had to proceed very prudently while it was in litigation.

Schmidt persisted. “If you don’t take some kind of action, someone is going to get killed,” he told her. “It’s not a case of if it will happen, but when.”

As in the past, Schmidt came away from the meeting disappointed. “I’ve wanted to bring down the walls of hatred, but it hasn’t been easy,” an obviously weary Schmidt tells me over lunch at a local Mexican restaurant. “There are a lot of fundamentalists in this town who are very literal about the Bible. Homosexuality, they’ll tell you, is the only sin that God destroyed two cities over.”

Schmidt believes his efforts to change both the consciousness and the conditions in Morgan Hill have largely failed. Every year, students ask to be reassigned out of his class, he tells me. Just the week before, he says, he received a “die faggot” note from a student.

“I’m tremendously discouraged,” Schmidt says, pushing away a plate he’s barely touched. “The superintendents in this district have always said that these things take time, that we can’t move fast. But kids will likely die while we’re waiting around. The time for negotiation is over. They’ve left us no choice. We’ve got to force the issue.”


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