Schools Step Up Effort to Protect Gay Students
Faced with a recent Supreme Court decision holding schools liable for student harassment of classmates, educators across the country are taking steps to protect gay and lesbian students and to prevent costly lawsuits.
Lawyers are advising superintendents about their legal responsibilities, school board members are reviewing their policies and principals are training teachers on how to react to harassment against gays.
“More school systems are making it clear that all students deserve a hassle-free education,” said Gary Marx, president of the Center for Public Outreach, a consulting firm that works with educators across the nation. The trend is particularly notable in California, in part because of a new state law banning anti-gay discrimination.
Marx said districts are not only educating teachers and trustees but are disciplining students more severely than before when they harass their classmates.
Principals consistently say that anti-gay harassment is not a serious problem on their campuses. But students tell a different story: of being taunted and threatened, getting into fights and trying to hide their identities.
“Teenage years are so hard, and they’re even harder if you are gay,” said Gustavo Soc, who graduated from Los Angeles High School in June.
For that reason, gay support groups are popping up on high school campuses across the country, often provoking opposition and lawsuits.
Superintendents don’t want to face a controversy like the one in Orange County last year, when trustees from the Orange Unified School District voted to bar a gay-straight alliance club from meeting at El Modena High School.
In response, two students--with the backing of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund--filed a federal lawsuit saying their civil rights were violated. Last week, trustees voted to allow the club to meet on campus, provided that the members do not explicitly discuss sex.
Elsewhere, the Salt Lake City School District voted last week to lift a ban on extracurricular clubs that was instituted in 1996 after East High School students formed a gay and straight coalition. The district had been sued for violating the students’ free speech rights.
At a recent school law seminar called “Starting the School Year Right,” Ventura Unified School District lawyer Don Austin compared the potential lawsuits to an oncoming train, and warned administrators to wake up and take notice.
California’s new law banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in public schools and universities was signed late last year by Gov. Gray Davis. The law gives students a formal grievance process if they are tormented.
The 1999 Supreme Court decision, Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education, held that school employees and board members may be held liable for damages in student-to-student sexual harassment cases.
School officials could face liability if they act with “deliberate indifference,” and if the harassment is so severe and pervasive that it prevents the students from having access to educational opportunity.
In the wake of those actions, a number of districts are making policy changes and informing their staffs of their legal responsibilities as the school year gets under way.
In the Compton Unified School District, officials are revising their sexual harassment policy so it specifically applies to students who are harassed based on their sexual orientation.
Officials in the Long Beach Unified School District recently sent a handbook to parents and students, telling them that youths can be suspended or expelled for sexually harassing their classmates. The problem, said spokesman Chris Eftychiou, is that students often do not report it when they are verbally or physically abused.
“When we find out that it is happening, we take it extremely seriously and we take every action we can to prevent it from happening again,” said Eftychiou.
Long Beach district officials have urged principals to post at their schools the policies regarding slurs, sexual harassment and hostile acts against students. New teachers must sign a document saying they read and understood the district’s policies.
Steps Called Long Overdue
Myron Dean Quon, a staff attorney for Lambda, said school policies protecting gay and lesbian students are long overdue.
Others say school districts are going too far. “There is a line between sensitivity and indoctrination,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, which was founded by conservative evangelist Pat Robertson.
Sekulow said schools should treat all students with dignity and respect, but they shouldn’t promote one lifestyle over another. If districts are going to offer extra protections for gay and lesbian students, they should do the same for students who want to express their religious beliefs, he said.
Many educators say they don’t believe harassment against gay and lesbian youths affects their student body, but they want to ensure that teachers and principals respond appropriately to any discrimination.
Students, however, say it is a problem. In many communities, current and former students have formed groups to work against discrimination, such as one involving about 160 high school students and recent graduates in Ventura. Members of the youth group sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Ventura meet weekly to talk about their experiences--at school, at home and in the community.
In interviews, a half-dozen students told of being harassed, discriminated against and intimidated. A couple of the students came out of the closet to their teachers or counselors, but didn’t think they received the support they needed. Few are involved in extracurricular activities. Most said they have skipped school on numerous occasions because they didn’t feel safe on campus.
They say the name-calling and teasing in elementary school can lead to violent assaults and hate crimes in high school if teachers and principals don’t react early.
Kevin Winger, 22, who was openly gay during his last two years at Nordhoff High School in Ojai, said he heard anti-gay epithets dozens of times a day. And after one name-calling incident turned violent, Winger said, he was knocked unconscious by classmates.
Winger said he wanted the school to report the attack as a hate crime, but officials refused to do so.
“The complacency of the school bothered me the most,” said Winger, who now works at the community center. “Complacency is just like saying it’s OK.”
Soc, 19, who will attend UC Davis in the fall, said he didn’t join any teams or clubs in middle school because he worried that people would find out he was gay. During that time, he had few friends and spent most of his time alone in his room studying.
“I was afraid,” said Soc. “And I was angry at myself because I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. I didn’t feel that anybody really knew me.”
High school proved to be a better experience. He came out at the beginning of his senior year and met several gay students. He started a gay-straight alliance club and was elected student body president.
Young people across the country report similar experiences.
A 1999 survey of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students nationwide, sponsored by an advocacy group, reported that 91% heard homophobic comments regularly, 69% had experienced verbal harassment, and 24% suffered physical harassment.
In addition, 39% of the youths surveyed reported that nobody intervened when homophobic remarks were made in school. The survey was conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network, an organization working to end anti-gay bias in schools, and has been widely cited.
“This issue warrants the attention, vigilance and sensitivity of anybody who works in the schools,” said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of the nation’s largest urban school systems.
“Inaction invites lawsuits and also leaves open the possibility that a student would harm himself.”