ACLU Secures Sweeping Changes in Arkansas School District

Affiliate: ACLU of Arkansas
July 17, 2003 12:00 am

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Settlement Affirms Students’ First Amendment Right to Be Openly Gay at School


JACKSONVILLE, AR — A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union regarding an Arkansas school’s treatment of a 14-year-old student for being openly gay ended today with district-wide policy changes to ensure fair treatment of lesbian and gay students.

“”I’m really glad that this is all over and that the ACLU is making the school treat gay students the way they should have been treated in the first place,”” said the student, Thomas McLaughlin, adding, “”No more students should have to go through what I did.””

The Pulaski County Special School District officials had “”outed”” McLaughlin to his parents without his permission, made him read from the Bible, and disciplined him for talking about his sexual orientation and later for talking about that punishment. These actions, the ACLU lawsuit charged, violated McLaughlin’s rights to free speech, equal protection, and privacy as well as his religious liberty.

“”This young man’s story has really touched a nerve – we’ve received a tremendous outpouring of outrage over Jacksonville Junior High School’s behavior and supportive messages for Thomas from all over the world,”” said Rita Sklar, Executive Director of the ACLU of Arkansas. “”We’re pleased this school has seen the error of its ways and hope schools everywhere will learn from this example. Public schools aren’t above the Constitution, and they can’t get away with silencing gay students and violating their rights.””

Under the terms of the agreement, the school has agreed to expunge McLaughlin’s disciplinary record, as well as enforce the following policies throughout the district:

  • School officials will not disclose any student’s sexual orientation to others;
  • School officials will not punish students for talking during non-instructional time about their sexual orientation;
  • School officials will not punish students for talking during non-instructional time about discipline they’ve received;
  • School officials will not discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation in disciplinary matters; and
  • School officials will not preach to students (including forced reading of the Bible).

The district also issued a formal apology to McLaughlin and his parents and agreed to pay a total of $25,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.

“”What happened to Thomas McLaughlin probably happens more often than you might suspect, and his bravery in coming forward is amazing,”” said Leslie Cooper, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. “”We’re thrilled about the changes he’s won throughout his school district and hope this will inspire other lesbian and gay students who have been mistreated by their schools to come forward and demand that they be treated fairly.””

McLaughlin was represented by the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project and attorney Kathy Hall of Little Rock, a volunteer attorney for the ACLU of Arkansas.

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