Gay Student To Get Nearly $1 Million in Settlement

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In a widely watched civil case that both sides agree has far-reaching implications, a northern Wisconsin school district agreed last week to pay nearly $1 million to a young man who says he was victimized by fellow students because he is gay.

The settlement agreement came after a federal court jury found that administrators in the 2,400-student Ashland district failed to protect Jamie Nabozny from verbal and physical abuse while he was a student there.

Mr. Nabozny will receive $900,000, plus up to $62,000 for potential medical expenses related to injuries he suffered while he was a student.

The Nov. 19 verdict in the U.S. District Court in Eau Claire was the first time a federal jury found school officials responsible for anti-gay harassment committed by students, experts said last week.

Lawyers for Mr. Nabozny and gay-rights advocates hailed the decision as a victory for homosexual students.

"I'm very glad that the truth came out. Now I can go on with my life," Mr. Nabozny said in a written statement. "I feel like I have justice, and that this means justice for all other kids out there who aren't sure if they should stay in school or stay alive."

The jury, however, found no liability on the district's part, instead faulting the three administrators named in the lawsuit.

District 'Surprised'

Mr. Nabozny, now 21, alleged that the harassment by fellow students, which he said led him to attempt suicide, began when he was a student at Ashland Middle School in 1988 and continued until he dropped out of Ashland High School in 1993.

In addition to verbally abusing Mr. Nabozny, other students kicked and urinated on him, and in one incident, pretended to rape him in a classroom, his lawsuit said. One attack left him in need of surgery.

Mr. Nabozny's lawsuit claimed that his middle school principal told him that if he was going to be openly gay, he should expect such treatment.

Represented by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a New York City-based gay-rights advocacy organization, Mr. Nabozny filed the suit last year against the school system and the three administrators.

Mr. Nabozny eventually earned a high school equivalency diploma and now lives in Minneapolis. He said in his statement that he hopes "to go to college and have the normal educational experience that I waited a long time for."

Throughout the case, school officials maintained that they had tried to protect Mr. Nabozny and had allowed him to change his schedule and use a private restroom to avoid the students who were harassing him.

The district also had a policy that protected students, including those who are gay, from discrimination.

'Surprised and Disappointed'

In an interview last week, Superintendent Steve Kelly said he was pleased that the jury recognized that fact in finding no liability on the district's part. But, he added, "we are surprised and disappointed that the jury did not come out in support of our administrators."

Mr. Kelly said the case is precedent-setting for other reasons.

"This has implications for a lot of school districts, if name-calling can become discrimination and can result in a lawsuit," he said. "This could have happened in any district across the country."

In October of last year, U.S. District Judge John C. Shabaz said that the school system was not responsible for protecting Mr. Nabozny from "private violence."

But that ruling was overturned last summer on appeal by the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit and sent back to the district court for trial. ("Gay Student's Suit Against Wis. District Reinstated," Sept. 4, 1996.)

Vol. 16, Issue 13

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