Wednesday, 24 July 2024

School district reaches settlement with ACLU to protect students against anti-gay harassment

UPPER LAKE The ACLU of Northern California (ACLU-NC) has reached a settlement with the Upper Lake Union Elementary School District that contains a comprehensive series of steps the district will undertake to protect students from anti-gay harassment and discrimination.


The agreement is on behalf of a student who was persistently subjected to verbal taunting and physical abuse throughout elementary and middle school based on his perceived sexual orientation.


Lake County News was unable to reach a school district attorney, and Superintendent Kurt Herndon also could not be reached for comment because he is out of the office until next month.


The ACLU-NC sought this settlement in light of federal and state laws that allow for school administrators to be held liable if they fail to take adequate measures to remedy anti-LGBT harassment and discrimination.


"I can't remember a day at school when I wasn't called a faggot or gay," recalled the student. Since the third grade he has been the target of taunts, bullying and anti-gay name-calling on a regular basis.


The years of harassment finally culminated in the student being attacked by a group of boys in the school locker room after gym class last fall.


The boys knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the stomach, head and sides while screaming "fag" and "queer" at him. He received medical care for his injuries, which is when his parents contacted the ACLU to try to finally put a stop to the abuse, believing that the district was not going to independently take the appropriate steps to respond and protect him.


"We talked to the school about this harassment for years. We wanted to know that the adults in charge cared enough to make sure that our son was safe and secure at school," said the boy's mother. "I'm happy about the policy changes in the district and hope that addressing this will help protect my son and other students in the area."


The settlement agreement was reached without a lawsuit. It contains a series of proactive steps that the Upper Lake Union Elementary School District will take to create a safe learning environment for all students and to educate students and staff about preventing harassment and discrimination at school.


The district also now has adopted clear policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as required by California law.


"We're pleased the district is taking such a big step in the right direction," said ACLU attorney Juniper Lesnik. "The lesson for other schools is to address anti-gay harassment early before it escalates to violence."


Lesnik pointed to the murder of an openly gay 15-year-old in Oxnard earlier this year as a tragic example of what can happen when schools don't take harassment seriously. Oxnard student Lawrence King was murdered by a peer in February 2008 after long-term harassment went unchecked.


Among the steps the district has adopted to foster a supportive and safe learning environment are the following:


– Parent/student handbooks will be revised to include the newly adopted anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, as well as an explanation of the process for filing a complaint and a description of the steps the district will take in response to the complaint.


– Each school site will identify a teacher, administrator or staff member to serve as the point person for employees on how to prevent school-based harassment.


– The district will provide copies of a National Education Association publication addressing LGBT sensitivity and discuss it with all staff. At each staff meeting, administrators will inquire about incidents of harassment and review the steps teachers and staff should take to intervene.


– Experienced, qualified trainers will provide student training at least once each year at each school site to educate students regarding the harmful effects of discrimination.


– Experienced, qualified trainers will provide professional development to help all teachers and staff to understand the harmful impacts of harassment and discrimination and to learn intervention tools to help prevent and stop discriminatory behavior.


– The district will implement the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network's ("GLSEN") "No Name Calling Week" curriculum in all district schools.


– The district will implement programs that draw attention to anti-LGBT bullying and effective responses, such as the GLSEN National Day of Silence and the Gay/Straight Alliance Network's "Making your School a Hate-Free Zone" program.


– The district will support the maintenance of a Gay/Straight Alliance club at the middle school.


The settlement also includes a modest monetary award to the family. The ACLU has waived all attorneys' fees.


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