Case background: Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District

Document Date: January 6, 2004

Case background: Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District

In 1998, Alana Flores, Freddie Fuentes, Jeanette Dousharm, and three other students sued the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, charging that school district employees repeatedly ignored or minimized many reports by the students that they were being abused by others who thought they were gay. The plaintiffs were students at three schools in the Morgan Hill district – Live Oak High School, Britton Middle School, and Murphy Middle School – between 1991 and 1998. In their lawsuit, the students sought to obtain improved training for district personnel and students, and damages.

In court documents and testimony, the plaintiffs paint a picture of a terrifying atmosphere for gay students in the Morgan Hill schools. Among the incidents the plaintiffs described:

  • Freddie was in 7th grade when a group of students surrounded him at a school bus stop one morning and brutally beat and kicked him, calling him “”faggot.”” The bus driver ignored the scene when he drove up, let the attackers board the bus, and left Freddie lying on the ground at the bus stop as he drove away. He had to be treated at a hospital. The school only disciplined one of the attackers. Freddie transferred to another school, after school officials said that they couldn’t ensure his safety if he stayed.
  • Throughout her years in high school, students placed pages torn from pornographic magazines in Alana’s locker and scratched anti-gay obscenities into the paint on her locker door. Although she reported it, the school left the words on her locker for months before painting over them. In January of 1997, Alana found a picture of a naked woman, bound and gagged, with her legs spread and her throat slashed taped to her locker. On the picture, someone had written, “”Die, die? dyke bitch, fuck off. We’ll kill you.”” Alana, frightened and crying, took the photo to the assistant principal’s office. 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.”” The assistant principal then asked Alana if she was gay and said, “”If you’re not gay, why are you crying?””
  • During the 1996-1997 school year, one student was subjected to daily harassment in math class as other students threatened him and called him “”faggot”” in front of the teacher, who did nothing to stop them. At the same time, the teacher did take steps to stop racial harassment in his class. When another student spoke out against the way the boy was being treated in the class, other students told her, “”Shut up, you fucking dumb dyke.””
  • In a history class, Freddie was being called “”faggot”” and “”queer”” by other students, again in front of a Morgan Hill teacher. When Freddie told them to stop, the teacher took Freddie out into the hallway, told him he’d disrupted class, and shoved him against a wall.
  • Alana and Freddie were eating lunch one day when a student approached them and handed them a pornographic magazine opened to a page showing men and women having sex together and said, “”It’s women, faggot. This is the way you guys should be doing it.”” Although a campus monitor was nearby, nothing was done to stop what was going on. When the students reported the incident, the assistant principal refused to take their complaint and told them they were making “”too much of a fuss.”” After several weeks and repeated reports the harasser was suspended for two days (one of which was a teachers’ in service training day when students weren’t at school anyway). A male student who sexually harassed a female student the same week was suspended for five days.
  • Students shouting anti-gay epithets pelted Jeanette with food at lunch, and a group of students placed penis-shaped balloons on the table in front of her, saying, “”If you knew what this was, maybe you wouldn’t be a lesbian.”” This took place in front of a campus monitor, who did nothing. When Jeanette was harassed in the halls, administrators told her to go to class early to avoid the students who were tormenting her. Jeanette was also told to change clothes for gym in an area away from the rest of her class because the other girls said her presence made them uncomfortable.
  • In a drafting class, Freddie was harassed daily in front of the teacher, who did nothing. One student told him, “”I want to beat you up after class but I need a baseball bat to hit you because I don’t want to get AIDS.””
  • While investigating reports of a male student who had been sexually harassing female students, an assistant principal asked Jeanette whether the student in question had ever harassed her. When Jeanette said that he had, the assistant principal began asking inappropriate questions about her sexual orientation and suggested that Jeanette welcomed harassment by a boy because she must be “”tired of girls.””
  • In the winter of 1997, two of the plaintiffs – a lesbian couple – were in a school parking lot when a group of male students drove up. They shouted “”All dykes should die and you should not exist”” and threw a hard plastic cup, striking one of the girls in the head. When she reported it to a campus security officer, he told her, “”You have to expect this.””

According to the plaintiffs, school officials usually did nothing about the incidents, and on the rare occasions when they did respond it was so half-heartedly ineffectual that it only emboldened the attackers. Students were known to brag about how school officials let them get away with harassment or punished them very lightly. Ultimately, one of the plaintiffs, Jeanette Dousharm, felt she had no choice but to drop out of school because of the pervasive harassment. Another entered independent study to escape the daily taunting and attacks at school.

Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District settled on January 6, 2004. As a result of the settlement, the district will implement a comprehensive training program for administrators, staff, and students to combat anti-gay harassment. To learn more about the details of the training, see the settlement fact sheet at /node/20534. For a copy of the Agreement on Training Program and Policy Changes, go to /LesbianGayRights/LesbianGayRights.cfm?ID=14657&c=106.

In addition to the training program, the lawsuit also produced a historic ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. During the litigation, the school district argued that the law on how schools should respond to anti-gay bias among students was unclear, and so school officials shouldn’t be held legally responsible for letting it go on. In 1999, U.S. District Court Judge James Ware disagreed and upheld the right of the students to sue the district. The district appealed that decision, and in April of this year, a panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that if a school knows anti-gay harassment is taking place, it is obligated to take meaningful steps to end it and to protect students. Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, 324 F.3d 1130 (9th Cir. 2003).

The students were represented by the ACLU of Northern California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the ACLU’s national Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, and cooperating attorneys Stacey Wexler, Christine Sun, and Jay Kuo of Keker & Van Nest, LLP in San Francisco, James Emery of San Francisco, Diane Ritchie of San Jose, and Leslie Levy of Boxer and Gerson in Oakland.