Friday, August 21, 2009

NYCLU Files Lawsuit Over Anti-Gay Bullying

The New York Civil Liberties Union recently filed suit against the Mohawk Central School District, claiming it is liable under Title IX to a student, J.L., for failing to protect him student from bullying and harassment resulting from his sexual orientation and gender nonconformity. J.L., an openly-gay ninth grader at Jarvis High School, alleges that was subject to pervasive and ongoing verbal harassment by other students who repeatedly called him “pussy,” “faggot,” “queer,” “homo,” “cocksucker,” and “bitch." Students also allegedly threw food at him, tripped him and vandalized his property. One student shoved J.L. down the stairs causing him to sprain his ankle. J.L. alleges that he received numerous threats, including by one student who had brought a knife to school and threatened to stab J.L. and string his “faggot ass” up from the flagpole -- a threat that scared J.L. enough to leave school. Even J.L.'s science teacher participated in this abuse, telling him to be ashamed of his sexual orientation and that he should "hate himself every day until he changed."

Despite the fact that J.L.'s father called or met with the principal no fewer than 14 times, the complaint maintains that the principal failed to respond to the harassment and bullying J.L. was facing. He did not investigate or bring disciplinary actions against any of J.L.'s harassers, respond once that "boys will be boys." On another occasion, the complaint maintains, he told J.L.'s father that it was not his job to "cater to homosexuals." He advised J.L.'s father to consider home schooling and to go to the police instead, rather than to take measures to protect J.L. within the walls of Jarvis High. He refused even to consider a request to change J.L.'s schedule to avoid his primary harassers, and failed to uphold promises to allow J.L. to possess a cell phone on school grounds and to have access to a "safe room." As a result of the principal's indifference to J.L.'s harassment, J.L.'s grades and attendance suffered; he also endured physical injury and emotional distress.

The complaint pleads all of the elements that a plaintiff must prove for a district to be liable for damages under Title IX for peer harassment: the harassment was severe, pervasive, and motivated by the student's sex (particularly, his gender nonconforming appearance and behavior); the principal, an appropriate school official, had notice of the harassment and failed to respond at all; and J.L.'s educational opportunity was impaired. I predict that the case will end quickly with a favorable settlement to J.L.