ACLU/SC Sues Orange County School Officials for Sanctioning Sexist and Homophobic Environment

March 18, 2009 12:00 am

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SANTA ANA, Calif. – The ACLU of Southern California today sued the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and officials of Corona del Mar High School for permitting and sanctioning an atmosphere that is hostile to female, lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender students in general, and has led to despicable threats of violence against one student in particular.

Corona del Mar High School is the Orange County school where a production of the musical “Rent” was canceled in February before widespread, negative media coverage led school administrators to reverse themselves and allow the production to go forward.

The homophobic harassment and bullying at the school unfortunately typify a rise in hostility toward lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students throughout California in the wake of the divisive campaign over Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of lesbians and gay men to marry.

“The threats, intimidation and slurs directed toward students on the basis of gender and sexual orientation at Corona del Mar High School are part of a growing sexist and homophobic environment there that school administrators could have – and should have – stopped,” said Hector Villagra, director of the Orange County office of the ACLU/SC. “Instead, these school officials amplified the hostile atmosphere by sending the message that the harassers can act with impunity, and by telling students who were the targets of threats and bullying that they would have to find ways to avoid it.”

Among the charges in the lawsuit is that school officials and the school district have discriminated against students on the basis of sexual orientation or gender, violating the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Title IX and California safe schools laws.

One female student was targeted in a Facebook video in which three male students made sexually explicit comments about her and threatened her with violence. A fourth male student later threatened the female student on campus. The school’s inadequate and inappropriate response included assigning an assistant football coach at the school to investigate the harassment, an obvious conflict of interest because three of the four accused students are members of the football team. The female student has been forced to change her schedule, classes and routines in order to avoid the harassing students.

In another example of the hostile atmosphere at Corona del Mar High School, after officials at the school canceled the production of “Rent,” they later confiscated rainbow buttons that were worn by some students to show support for the musical.

Katherine Darmer, a Chapman University law professor who is on the board of the Orange County Equality Coalition – which focuses on LGBT issues and is a plaintiff in the ACLU/SC’s lawsuit – said members of the coalition have learned about disturbing incidents of homophobia that appear to have been tolerated at Corona del Mar High School. “Some of our members have been directly affected by this inappropriate conduct, which is particularly harmful in a high-school educational setting. We have several members who are parents in the school district, with a direct stake in the way CDM handles these matters,” Darmer noted. “School officials just don’t seem adequately focused on rooting out these inappropriate displays.”

“The campaign for and passage of Proposition 8 seems to have revived the notion that homophobic behavior is acceptable,” added Lori Rifkin, staff attorney for the ACLU. “The truth is that officials at Corona del Mar High School have an obligation to provide a safe and secure educational environment for all students, and that includes a duty to prevent and respond appropriately to bullying, hostility and threats based on sex or sexual orientation. Sadly, these officials haven’t met their responsibility under the law.”

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