Equity & Diversity

Three Districts Pay Damages In Gay-Rights Lawsuits

By Mark Walsh — September 04, 2002 3 min read
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Two school districts are shelling out hefty sums to settle lawsuits alleging they failed to protect gay students from harassment. Meanwhile, a third district last week agreed to a $1.2 million settlement with a teacher who was disciplined for speaking out on “controversial” issues, including advocating safety for gay students.

On Aug. 13, the 32,000-student Visalia, Calif., district agreed to a $130,000 settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by George Loomis, who alleged that he was subject to a pattern of harassment from fellow students and some of his teachers without appropriate responses from school officials.

In one incident when Mr. Loomis was a senior at Golden West High School in fall 1999, his Spanish teacher noticed his earring and allegedly said, “There are only two types of guys who wear earrings—pirates and faggots—and there isn’t any water around here.” The lawsuit said administrators did not respond to that and other alleged incidents.

The settlement calls for staff members to undergo training on how to prevent harassment based on sexual orientation. High school students in the district must attend one 50-minute training session, to be led by their peers.

Matt Coles, the director of the lesbian- and gay-rights project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Loomis, said the settlement would give other districts a “template” for preventing harassment of homosexual students.

“There’s no question that what happened in Visalia happens day in and day out throughout this country,” he said.

John Rozier, a lawyer for the district, noted that the settlement did not involve the district’s admission of the allegations.

“The school board took the matter seriously and paid the money,” he said. “Now we can seriously train staff and students and have a good environment for the future. But we think we had a good environment in the past.”

The second case involves the 58,000-student Washoe County district in Nevada. Former student Derek R. Henkle filed a federal lawsuit alleging that school officials failed to respond properly to a pattern of harassment that included an alleged incident in which fellow students lassoed him with a rope in the school parking lot and threatened to drag him from the back of a truck.

Changing Policies

The district agreed Aug. 27 to settle Mr. Henkle’s suit for $451,000. It also agreed to add sexual orientation to its sexual-harassment policy and make it clear that students are free to discuss their sexual orientation, said Steve Mulvenon, the district’s communications director.

He said district administrators deny the allegations in the suit and tried to discipline students who could be identified as harassing Mr. Henkle. But the district’s insurance carrier went bankrupt during the case, he said, and a state agency that served as a backup would not cover legal fees.

“We were not willing to roll the dice as to two or three million dollars in attorneys’ fees,” Mr. Mulvenon said.

The third case involved Karl Debro, an English teacher at San Leandro High School in the 7,600-student San Leandro, Calif., district. Mr. Debro, who is heterosexual, alleged he was disciplined during the 1997-98 school year for discussing minority- and gay- rights issues with students.

On Aug. 8, a state trial court judge ruled unconstitutional the district’s policy limiting discussion of controversial issues. A jury held that the district and Superintendent Thomas Himmelberg had violated Mr. Debro’s rights of free speech and association and discriminated against him because he is African-American.

The jury awarded Mr. Debro $500,000 for emotional distress and was to consider punitive damages when the district agreed to settle the case for $1.2 million.

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