August 19, 2009

>NYCLU Sues New York School District for Failing to Protect Gay Student

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The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) announced today that they have filed a federal lawsuit against the Mohawk Central School District in Herkimer County (upstate New York). The NYCLU has charged the school district with failing to ensure the safety of Jacob, a gay student at Gregory B. Jarvis Junior/Senior High School, who has suffered harassment, verbal abuse and physical assaults from his classmates:

Beginning in the seventh grade and continuing through Jacob’s eighth grade year, numerous students relentlessly harassed Jacob because he is gay, dyes his hair, wears eye makeup and speaks in a high-pitched voice. He endured a range of slurs, such as faggot, queer and homo, on a daily basis, occasionally with teachers present. Indeed at least one teacher contributed to this climate of harassment by telling Jacob he should be ashamed of himself for being gay.

Aside from the continuous verbal assault, Jacob has also experienced physical intimidation and violence at school. Students have thrown food at him in the cafeteria; pushed him down the stairs; knocked books from his hands; destroyed or defaced his belongings, including his clothing, cell phone and iPod; and threatened to beat, stab and kill him. When [a] student who brought a knife to school threatened to kill him, he said he would string Jacob’s "ass up from the flagpole."

Jacob's father, mother and stepmother frequently made their concerns known to school Principal Edward Renaldo, who agreed to look into the allegations of harassment but never upheld his promises. In addition, the district's equal opportunity compliance officer, Cynthia Stocker, did not follow protocol by filing reports about each of the harassments and abuses that Jacob faced. Because both Renaldo and Stocker failed to alert the proper authorities and did not seek to correct the situation, the NYCLU believes that school officials violated the district's anti-harassment policies.

Unfortunately, Jacob's experience shares a lot in common with those of other LBGT middle and high school students in New York state. As GLSEN demonstrated in Inside New York Schools: The Experiences of LGBT Students, a research brief using data from the 2007 National School Climate Survey:
  • 4 out of 5 LGBT students in New York were verbally harassed (called names or threatened) in school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.
  • 2 out of 5 LGBT students were physically harassed because of their sexual orientation.
  • 1 out of 5 LGBT students were physically assaulted--kicked, punched or worse.

Like Jacob, many of these students experience emotional and mental distress because of these attacks, and their academic performance declines as a result.

Enacting comprehensive anti-bullying policies that enumerate categories often targeted for harassment (such as sexual orientation and gender identity/expression) is necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of students, but equally important are school faculty and staff members who make sure that these policies are enforced and that all of their students do not suffer the sort of abuse that Jacob and many others have faced.

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