May 18, 2009

ACLU Reaches Agreement With School District To Combat Bias After Lesbian Student Is Harassed By Teachers

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

VALLEJO, CA – The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it has reached a settlement agreement with the Vallejo City Unified School District on behalf of a high school student who faced anti-gay harassment and discrimination from teachers and school staff and was required to participate in a school-sponsored “counseling” group designed to discourage students from being lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. The settlement is designed to combat harassment and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity at all the district’s schools, and includes district-wide anti-harassment training for students and staff.

“All I ever wanted was to be able to go to school and just be myself. But I couldn’t do that when the people I was supposed to be learning from were judging me and telling me something was wrong with me. How was I supposed to learn when I was constantly scared?” said Hamilton, a high school student who came out as a lesbian when she was 13.

For Rochelle Hamilton, starting high school was the beginning of relentless verbal harassment and discrimination from teachers and staff based on her sexual orientation and gender expression. Hamilton began attending Vallejo’s Jesse Bethel High School as a sophomore in the fall of 2007. The verbal attacks started almost immediately, and continued for months.

Hamilton became severely depressed and her grades plummeted. Worried for her daughter, Hamilton’s mother, Cheri Hamilton, repeatedly wrote letters, made phone calls, and met in person with school and district officials for several months. After three months of outreach to the school and the district, Cheri Hamilton contacted the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California for help. The ACLU intervened to resolve the matter with the school district.

Hamilton reports that while some of the harassment she suffered came from other students, most of the time it came from school teachers and staff. Specific incidents included:

  • A teacher approached Hamilton while she was hugging her girlfriend and said, “This is ungodly, and you’re going to hell. This is a sin.”
  • Another teacher said, “What’s wrong with you? What are you, a man or a woman?”
  • Other school staff made repeated harassing comments to Hamilton in front of her classmates, including saying, “it’s not right to be this way.”
  • Hamilton was also on several occasions denied access to the girls’ locker room.

“California school districts are required by state law to protect students from harassment and discrimination, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Elizabeth Gill, an ACLU-NC staff attorney who worked with the district on the settlement. “If a school district ignores anti-gay bias in schools, it is plainly violating both state and federal law. These laws are designed, in part, to ensure that all students are able to learn and thrive free from bias. When it’s left unchecked, harassment can take a serious toll on students.”

One of the most egregious incidents in this case involved a school counselor who required Hamilton to attend a special weekly support group for gay students. The real purpose of the group was quickly revealed, however, when the counselor berated students for “choosing” to be gay and tried to convince them to change their sexual orientation or gender expression. The counselor told the students that it is “hard to get a job if you’re gay.” When Hamilton’s mother went to school officials about the “counseling” group, the counselor confronted Hamilton the next week, telling her, “You’re going to get this treatment your whole life. What are you going to do, stand up every time?”

“The district-wide anti-harassment training will make Vallejo schools a more welcoming place to learn for all students,” said Jory Steele, ACLU-NC’s managing attorney. “District administrators made the right move in taking important steps to protect its students from bias.”

Hamilton transferred out of Jesse Bethel High School midway through her sophomore year to escape the daily harassment. She is now completing her junior year at another high school in the district.

Pursuant to the five-year agreement reached with the ACLU, the district will adopt a clear policy explicitly prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation or gender identity, as required by California law; develop a specific procedure for harassment and discrimination complaints; provide mandatory training for all teachers and other staff who interact with students in how to identify anti-gay harassment and discrimination, why it’s harmful, and how to prevent it; and provide mandatory anti-harassment training to all students in the district, as well as taking other steps to make the district a more welcoming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.

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