Equity & Diversity

High Court Declines Case On Harassment of Gay Teacher

By Mark Walsh — October 30, 2002 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court declined last week to take up the appeal of an openly gay former teacher who claimed he was driven from his job, and into a nervous breakdown, by harassment from students and parents that his school district failed to address.

Meanwhile, over a bitter dissent by four justices, the court refused to take up the question of whether the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-old offenders constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

The teacher case involved Tommy R. Schroeder, who taught 6th grade at Templeton Middle School in the 4,000- student Hamilton, Wis., district when he disclosed his homosexuality at a public meeting in the early 1990s. Beginning in the 1993-94 school year, some students began to call him “‘faggot” and suggested he had AIDS. He reported the incidents to administrators, but most of the harassment was anonymous and went unpunished.

He asked that the district provide sensitivity training condemning such harassment, but administrators responded only with a memo urging teachers not to tolerate anti-gay taunts, according to court papers. Mr. Schroeder transferred to an elementary school in 1996, but soon faced harassment from some parents and unknown others, including slashed tires on his car and accusations that he was a pedophile. He resigned in 1998, citing a nervous breakdown.

His federal lawsuit alleged a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause, based on the argument that administrators took stronger action in response to cases of racial harassment.

A federal district court in Milwaukee dismissed the suit last year, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, affirmed that decision in March. A panel of the court ruled 2-1 that the district did not discriminate against Mr. Schroeder in its response to his harassment.

A concurring opinion by U.S. Circuit Judge Richard A. Posner said the district had a rational reason for limiting its response to harassment of a gay teacher because “if it explains sexual phenomena, including homosexuality, to schoolchildren in an effort to get them to understand that it is wrong to abuse homosexuals, it will make children prematurely preoccupied with issues of sexuality.”

The former teacher got a sympathetic dissent from U.S. Circuit Judge Diane P. Wood, who said the district could have prohibited epithets such as “faggot” and related harassment “without a detailed discussion of the sexual behavior of adults.” She said Mr. Schroeder’s case deserved to go to trial.

The justices declined without comment on Oct. 21 to hear the ex-teacher’s appeal in Schroeder v. Hamilton School District (Case No. 02- 254).

Death-Penalty Division

In the death-penalty case, four justices signed an opinion calling the execution of convicts who were under age 18 at the time of their capital crimes a “shameful practice.”

“Executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society,” said Justice John Paul Stevens, who was joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen G. Breyer.

The four were dissenting from a decision by the court’s majority, delivered without comment, to refrain from hearing an appeal by Kevin Nigel Stanford, who is on death row in Kentucky for the murder of a gas station attendant in 1981 when he was 17.

The high court cited Mr. Stanford’s case in a 1989 decision upholding the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-old offenders. In a separate 1988 case, the court virtually prohibited the death penalty for offenders convicted of crimes committed when they were under age 16.

Mr. Stanford’s lawyers had hoped that the Supreme Court’s decision last term in Atkins v. Virginia, which barred the imposition of the death penalty on mentally retarded persons, would lead to a similar reconsideration on capital punishment for offenses by minors. They said 83 people on death row, all male, were juveniles when they committed their crimes.

In his dissent, Justice Stevens said recent social science research about youth development strengthens the argument that juveniles should not be held as culpable as adults for capital crimes.

“Neuroscientific evidence of the last few years has revealed that adolescent brains are not fully developed, which often leads to erratic behaviors and thought processes in that age group,” he said.

The case was In Re Kevin Nigel Stanford (No. 01-10009).

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