FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
VISALIA, CA -- The Visalia Unified School District has agreed to adopt sweeping reforms to address anti-gay harassment, including groundbreaking measures to train staff and students with the goal of preventing harassment before it happens, the American Civil Liberties Union announced today.
The settlement ends a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU over routine harassment of lesbian and gay students, some of whom were then forced into a special program for students with behavioral problems.
""This milestone settlement shows schools how to meet their legal obligation to not only respond to anti-gay harassment, but to actively work to prevent it,"" said Ann Brick, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. ""Anti-gay harassment is a particularly big problem in schools outside major urban centers, like those in Visalia. Students there will now have a shot at being treated equally, and the rest of California and the nation will have a strong model for addressing these issues.""
The settlement - which was presented this morning to the federal judge presiding over the case - requires mandatory training for all school staff and all high school students. The staff training will be designed by an outside expert, the Intergroup Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization set up to promote tolerance. The training will be aimed at teaching staff how to intervene and remedy acts of harassment, and how to prevent them from occurring in the future. The sessions will be supplemented with annual updates.
The student training will be designed by the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The student trainings will be conducted ""peer to peer"" by other students, and will eventually be made a part of the permanent curriculum. The settlement also requires the district to:
- Adopt policies explicitly forbidding staff or student harassment or discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation;
- Name ""compliance coordinators"" to help parents, students and teachers with incidents of discrimination;
- Establish a community advisory group to help address discrimination and assess how the settlement is working.
""No student should have to go through the kind of harassment I did. And parents deserve to know their children will be safe when they're at school,"" said George Loomis, a plaintiff and former high school student in the Visalia Unified School District. ""This settlement will have a major impact on the lives of students and their families. I'm really glad to see such a positive outcome to this case.""
Loomis was a senior at his California high school when one of his teachers, referring to the boy's earring, told his class, ""Only two kinds of guys wear earrings, pirates and faggots, and I don't see any water around here."" Over the next few weeks the teacher continued making such remarks about Loomis in class, sparking a wave of harassment and threats from other students and school staff that eventually drove the honor student from school.
The ACLU filed the federal lawsuit in 2001 on behalf of Loomis and the statewide Gay-Straight Alliance Network, charging that because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, students are harassed by school administrators, teachers, and classmates. During the lawsuit, attorneys presented the stories of over a dozen other students who had suffered similar harassment over the past few years. The school's response, the lawsuit said, was to move gay students off campus by placing them in inappropriate special programs. The case claimed the hostile environment this creates is unlawful under the U.S. Constitution and California state law.
""The settlement is a victory for Visalia students and every student across the country because it provides a model for how school districts nationwide can prevent harassment on their campuses," said Carolyn Laub, executive director of the Gay-Straight Alliance Network. "GSA Network welcomes this unprecedented opportunity to work with the Visalia Unified School District to create safe schools for all its students." GSA Network, which has over 275 gay-straight alliance clubs in California, will design and implement a mandatory peer-to-peer student training program in all Visalia high schools, as required by the settlement.
""In terms of policy changes and lasting system-wide reform, this settlement sets the standard, "" said Kevin Lewis, an attorney with the San Francisco law firm of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin, who served as lead pro bono counsel to the plaintiffs in the case. ""This is a great victory - not just for our clients but for students everywhere in America.""
According to the ACLU, this settlement is a model for California school districts because it complies with the statewide anti-discrimination law, the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act of 2000, and with federal laws against harassment in the schools.
""This case isn't just about Visalia, California - it's about a nationwide epidemic in non-urban schools, where young people face unspeakable harassment and violence because of who they are,"" said James Esseks, litigation director at the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. ""This could - and often does - happen at almost any school outside urban America.""
More about the Gay-Straight Alliance Network's student-led efforts to create safer schools in California can be found at http://www.gsanetwork.org, and more about the ACLU's work nationwide on making schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth can be found online at /lgbt/youth/index.html.