School district agrees to protect gay students

BY admin

January 07 2004 12:00 AM ET

The Morgan Hill Unified School District in Northern California, where gay students have described a persistent climate of antigay harassment and discrimination, including physical violence, has agreed to a wide-ranging staff and student training program and policy protections, ending a five-year-long federal battle that began with a suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "I am so happy that the district has finally recognized the seriousness of this problem and is ready to do something to stop it," said Alana Flores, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "The kind of abuse I had to deal with every day when I went to school was horrible. No student should have to face that. Making schools safe for all students through this kind of training is something every school should do."

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of six high school students in the district who charged that school officials did not protect them from ongoing antigay abuse. As part of the settlement, all administrators, teachers, campus monitors, custodians, school safety officers, and bus drivers in the district will take part in a mandatory annual training program devoted exclusively to issues of harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The district is also implementing an age-appropriate training program for students and an antidiscrimination policy that bans harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Substantial damages will also be paid to the plaintiffs. "This settlement has been a long time coming, but the results more than justify the years of effort," said Ann Brick, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California who worked on the case. "The mandatory annual training program for both students and staff should serve as a model for schools everywhere that care about protecting their students from harassment. We hope that the outcome in this case will make suing other school districts less necessary."

"The bravery of these students in speaking out about the horrific abuse they faced on a daily basis at school will reach far beyond Morgan Hill," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "Because these six kids came forward, schools now know they can't just ignore abuse of gay students when it's happening in their hallways. This training program isn't just the right thing to do, it's what schools have to do if they want to keep their students safe."

The students, five girls and one boy, were repeatedly mistreated both physically and verbally. One student, Freddie Fuentes, had to go to the hospital after a group of male students beat and kicked him while shouting "faggot" at a school bus stop in full view of the bus driver. Another student, Alana Flores, found a pornographic picture taped to her locker. A handwritten note attached to it read, "Die, Die...Dyke bitch, Fuck off. We'll kill you." When Flores asked for help, the assistant principal brushed her off and told her to go back to class, saying, "Don't bring me this trash anymore. This is disgusting." Diane Ritchie, a San Jose attorney who worked on the case, said, "One good thing has come out of the years of pain these students experienced, and that's the training that the district is going to do now that the case is over. We commend the school district for adopting a training program that will make sure everyone in the district understands that harassment, threats, and violence are completely unacceptable and won't be tolerated."

The case, Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, had earlier been appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the school district. The court issued a historic ruling holding that schools must take steps to eliminate harassment when they learn that lesbian, gay, and bisexual students are abused at school.

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