Abuse of Gay Students Brings Increase in Lawsuits
In the halls of the local high school, the words “faggot” and “dyke” were routinely uttered, about as often, Alana Flores remembers, as “hello” and “goodbye.”
Slurs were hissed at her in class, she says, scribbled on her locker and on pornographic death threats--including a picture of a bound and gagged woman with a slit throat.
Flores is 20 now, the high school harassment behind her but hardly forgotten. Together with five other former students of Live Oak High School in this half country, half suburban town south of San Jose, she is suing the Morgan Hill Unified School District, claiming that teachers and administrators ignored pervasive anti-gay abuse.
One of several such actions filed around the nation, the lawsuit represents the latest frontier in school harassment issues--a legal front that gained ground this week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school districts can be held liable in similar cases involving extensive sexual harassment of students by one another.
Emerging in the past five years, gay harassment suits and legislative efforts to ban discrimination in California schools are a reaction to a favorite, and at times remarkably ugly, form of student-on-student torment. As early as grade school, gay epithets and accusations of homosexuality are tossed with abandon at kids who are gay, thought to be gay or who are simply different or unpopular.
Anti-gay taunts are hardly new to schools. But by many accounts, campus gay-baiting and bashing are more pronounced than ever, the flip side of the increasing profile of gay youth and homosexuality in general and the emergence of gay student support groups.
“The more visibility and openness with which the issue is addressed in culture at large and the more support for young people, ironically the more attacks,” said Beth Reis, principal researcher for a recent study of school-related anti-gay harassment across Washington state.
In an anonymous 1995 survey of Bay Area community college students conducted by a psychologist studying hate crimes, half the young men questioned admitted that they had engaged in anti-gay name calling, threats or physical violence.
“Harassment of young people, accusing them of being gay and lesbian whether or not they are, is much worse than ever,” said Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), who is sponsoring a bill--due for a vote next week--that would specifically ban discrimination against gay students, “I think it’s the flavor of the moment to castigate people with.”
California teenagers lobbying for her proposal say they have been spat on, beaten and constantly called “faggot” or “dyke” by their peers. One Fullerton teenager says she had her head shoved into a school toilet by a group of girls.
The study in which Reis was involved chronicled eight gang rapes of males and females in Washington.
In one of those cases, a school cheerleader told interviewers, she had been forced to watch while a lesbian friend who had kissed her at the high school prom was raped and urinated on by the cheerleader’s boyfriend and his buddies. The alleged attack, never reported to school authorities, occurred in a storage building on school grounds.
In the Central Valley town of Manteca, the harassment followed 17-year-old Robert Ryan off campus.
He says a group of students knocked him down and kicked him repeatedly one day while he was walking home from school. His house has been egged and draped with toilet paper. In March, he says, he awakened and found the carcasses of a mutilated raccoon and a cat on his lawn and porch.
Two months ago, Ryan, founder of the Sierra High School gay-straight student group, quit school and took up independent studies at home.
“It wasn’t worth it,” he said. “The crap they put me through was not worth a high school education. There are people I miss a lot, but it’s not worth going through that hell.”
Ryan says he was too ashamed to report the kicking attack to authorities, and Sierra High officials say he didn’t inform them of various campus incidents until more than a year after they occurred.
Abuse Dismissed as Teasing
When faculty or administrators are told of harassment or see it for themselves, the response is often inadequate, students and parents charge.
They say the harassment is ignored or dismissed as teasing, or the targets are admonished that if they are openly gay, they have to expect such treatment.
“It was distressing how many educators stood by in silence or actually participated,” Reis said of episodes reported in the Washington survey, which was conducted by a group of public and private agencies called the Safe Schools Coalition.
Reis and others say that even the well-intentioned are sometimes afraid to address anti-gay bullying for fear they will be labeled gay themselves or accused by conservative parents of promoting homosexuality in schools.
In Morgan Hill, the school district roundly denies that it failed to take appropriate action.
“Contrary to the plaintiffs’ claims,” said the district’s attorney, Mark Davis, the administration “is unaware of any incident in which school employees had actual knowledge of these incidents of harassment and then acted with indifference.”
Flores, who now attends a San Jose-area community college, remembers it differently.
When she went to the office with one of the more offensive death threats that had been stuffed in her locker in her sophomore year--the picture of the bound and gagged woman--Flores says the assistant principal asked her if she was gay, telling her not to “bring me this trash anymore” and crumpling it up. She said she would try to get Flores another locker but never did, Flores recalls.
In one of her math classes, a classmate openly harangued her with gay slurs and obscenities but the teacher did nothing, contends the suit, filed last year in U.S. District Court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and San Jose attorney Diane Ritchie.
The teacher denies hearing the anti-gay remarks, according to Davis. The assistant principal says she did not make the comments attributed to her and does not recall being asked to change Flores’ locker.
Flores is an outgoing, talkative young woman who was active in dance and drama at Live Oak. She won a scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts in SSValencia but turned it down, she says, because she was afraid of being hundreds of miles from her supportive family and feared encountering more harassment.
She says she decided to sue after graduation, when she recounted her experiences to a couple of shocked adults, including a gay Morgan Hill teacher who told her nothing would change unless the district was taken to court. Other students, two of whom said they dropped out of Live Oak because of harassment, subsequently joined the action.
Crystal, another plaintiff who asked that her last name not be used, says the name calling and insults were so commonplace they became part of the day’s routine.
“You get up and take a shower and get harassed for the rest of the day,” said Crystal, who was once hit in the head by a cup thrown at her in the school parking lot by students yelling obscenities.
Her girlfriend had been a cheerleader and dated boys. She said that when she started going out with Crystal, everything changed.
“I’d seen [others targeted], but I still didn’t think it could happen to me,” Crystal’s girlfriend said. “All of a sudden I was the one they were saying these things to.”
She talked some teachers about it, “and they saw it in the halls,” she said, “but they really didn’t have any kind of response. . . . They didn’t do anything.”
The gay harassment suits in many ways mirror those involving student-on-student sexual harassment, raising the same issues of responsibility.
In the past decade a growing number of lawsuits have sought to hold schools accountable for student sexual harassment, arguing that it violates Title IX, the federal law barring sex discrimination in schools and colleges.
The court results had been mixed. But Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a case filed by a Georgia schoolgirl to go forward, ruling that school officials who ignore severe student sexual harassment can be liable for damages.
The decision was a boost to the gay harassment claims, since they frequently cite Title IX, along with other federal laws.
The first major victory in a gay student harassment suit came in late 1996, when a federal jury found Wisconsin high school officials liable for not protecting Jamie Nabozny from extensive physical and verbal abuse. He settled the case for nearly $1 million.
All told, about half a dozen similar cases have been filed in the last five years, several of them in California, according to the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which helped represent Nabozny.
Dennis Meyers, a lobbyist for the Assn. of California School Administrators, said the issue is not that schools don’t care or that they ignore harassment but that “the law has not given clear guidance.”
For that reason, his association supports Kuehl’s Assembly proposal to add sexual orientation to existing parts of the California Education Code that bar discrimination on the basis of sex, ethnicity and the like and that also forbid instruction that reflects adversely on the protected groups.
“With this bill it will be a lot more clear” what constitutes harassment, Meyers said. “In the past, [administrators] may have thought it was teasing, that it didn’t meet some standard of the law.”
But the measure, introduced each session since 1995 by Kuehl and defeated in the Assembly two years ago, is strongly opposed by religious conservatives who contend that it will promote homosexuality in schools.
“How about kids with pimples, kids who are fat, kids who are into computers, why don’t we include them?” asked the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition, which is airing radio ads against Kuehl’s bill. “Right now there are more laws than we need to prevent any kind of harassment.”
Gay Insults Learned Early
These days, children learn the potency of gay insults in the earliest grades.
“I’m not sure the kids really understand what they’re saying in most cases, but they know the word has negative connotations and they use it as a put-down,” said California Teachers Assn. Gay and Lesbian Caucus Co-Chairman Eric Heins, a Bay Area elementary school teacher who often hears students call each other gay or use gay slurs.
The targets of the abuse learn early too, even before they have a sexual identity.
They describe the sick feeling that comes before recess, seeking refuge from the playground in the nurse’s office, asking to go to the restroom minutes before school ends to get a running start from bullies, constantly strategizing, changing patterns and routes between home and school, between one class and the next.
To understand what it’s like to suffer such harassment, says 16-year-old Christina Smith of Monterey Park, try this: “Get a knife, stick it in your stomach. Twist it.”
Since Smith, who has lobbied for Kuehl’s bill in Sacramento, “came out” two years ago, she says there have been threats on her life.
Last October, she transferred to a continuation school.
Jesse Torres’ memories of elementary school consist of being pushed on the floor, socked and called names.
It didn’t get any better in high school in Ontario.
“People didn’t want to change in front of me in the locker room, and when I was changing they would push me over and they would laugh and walk by and step on me, pretending it was an accident,” said Torres, 21, who quit school in the 10th grade because of harassment.
He has worked odd jobs since dropping out of school: Taco Bell, Starbucks. He now works at a clothing store and as a cocktail waiter. He plans to get his graduate equivalency degree and go to college.
“I was weak when I dropped out. I regret that,” he said. “I wish I would have stuck it out and fought. I admire the gays and the lesbians who have gone through what I have gone through and stuck it out and graduated. I admire them. I envy them.”