Three Districts Pay
Damages In Gay-Rights Lawsuits
by Mark Walsh, Education Week, September 4, 2002
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Two school districts are shelling out hefty sums to settle
lawsuits alleging they failed to protect gay students from
harassment. Meanwhile, a third district last week agreed to a
$1.2 million settlement with a teacher who was disciplined for
speaking out on "controversial" issues, including advocating
safety for gay students.
On Aug. 13, the 32,000-student Visalia, Calif., district
agreed to a $130,000 settlement of a federal lawsuit filed by
George Loomis, who alleged that he was subject to a pattern of
harassment from fellow students and some of his teachers
without appropriate responses from school officials.
In one incident when Mr. Loomis was a senior at Golden West
High School in fall 1999, his Spanish teacher noticed his
earring and allegedly said, "There are only two types of guys
who wear earrings—pirates and faggots—and there isn't any
water around here." The lawsuit said administrators did not
respond to that and other alleged incidents.
The settlement calls for staff members to undergo training on
how to prevent harassment based on sexual orientation. High
school students in the district must attend one 50-minute
training session, to be led by their peers.
Matt Coles, the director of the lesbian- and gay-rights
project of the American Civil Liberties Union, which
represented Mr. Loomis, said the settlement would give other
districts a "template" for preventing harassment of homosexual
"There's no question that what happened in Visalia happens day
in and day out throughout this country," he said.
John Rozier, a lawyer for the district, noted that the
settlement did not involve the district's admission of the
"The school board took the matter seriously and paid the
money," he said. "Now we can seriously train staff and
students and have a good environment for the future. But we
think we had a good environment in the past."
The second case involves the 58,000-student Washoe County
district in Nevada. Former student Derek R. Henkle filed a
federal lawsuit alleging that school officials failed to
respond properly to a pattern of harassment that included an
alleged incident in which fellow students lassoed him with a
rope in the school parking lot and threatened to drag him from
the back of a truck.
The district agreed Aug. 27 to settle Mr. Henkle's suit for
$451,000. It also agreed to add sexual orientation to its
sexual-harassment policy and make it clear that students are
free to discuss their sexual orientation, said Steve Mulvenon,
the district's communications director.
He said district administrators deny the allegations in the
suit and tried to discipline students who could be identified
as harassing Mr. Henkle. But the district's insurance carrier
went bankrupt during the case, he said, and a state agency
that served as a backup would not cover legal fees.
"We were not willing to roll the dice as to two or three
million dollars in attorneys' fees," Mr. Mulvenon said.
The third case involved Karl Debro, an English teacher at San
Leandro High School in the 7,600-student San Leandro, Calif.,
district. Mr. Debro, who is heterosexual, alleged he was
disciplined during the 1997-98 school year for discussing
minority- and gay- rights issues with students.
On Aug. 8, a state trial court judge ruled unconstitutional
the district's policy limiting discussion of controversial
issues. A jury held that the district and Superintendent
Thomas Himmelberg had violated Mr. Debro's rights of free
speech and association and discriminated against him because
he is African-American.
The jury awarded Mr. Debro $500,000 for emotional distress and
was to consider punitive damages when the district agreed to
settle the case for $1.2 million.