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Lambda Back-to-School Kit Promotes Respect for Gay Students & Teachers

On-line Lambda Kit spotlights safety, civil rights concerns in Nation's Schools

Hearing "hey faggot" shouted across classrooms and hallways. Being punched in the face on school grounds. The principal responding only, "Boys will be boys. If you're going to be gay, that's what you can expect." Many students heading back to school this fall have more to worry about than homework and team tryouts.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, announcing its Web-based Back-to-School Kit, promotes safer schools for lesbian and gay students, fair employment conditions for gay teachers, and respect for all civil rights at school. The Lambda Back-to-School Kit can be found at http://www.lambdalegal.org

The Lambda Kit highlights trends, action steps, and resources for securing fair treatment for lesbian and gay youth and teachers. Some of the students and teachers Lambda represents are described below.

STOPPING ANTI-GAY VIOLENCE AT SCHOOL

"Taunts and anti-gay violence are driving students out of school and pushing vulnerable youth to terrible desperation. This bullying is not only dangerous -- it is illegal when it is ignored by the school officials entrusted with the safety of all students," says Supervising Attorney Jon W. Davidson of Lambda's Western Regional Office (WRO). Davidson represents Derek Henkle in Lambda's case against school officials in Reno, Nevada.

Derek Henkle suffered years of merciless physical and emotional abuse that stopped him from finishing high school. His case breaks new legal ground with its charge of first amendment violations by school officials who demanded the youth hide his sexual orientation. It raises tort claims for negligence and infliction of emotional distress and seeks punitive damages against school officials and a teacher who ignored the anti-gay abuse.

The Henkle case builds from a 1996 Lambda victory, Nabozny v. Podlesny. After a jury verdict for Jamie Nabozny, school officials in Ashland, Wisconsin, agreed to pay nearly $1-million for ignoring the beatings and abuse Nabozny suffered. Since then, lesbian and gay students have filed similar lawsuits in California, Massachusetts, New York, Washington, and elsewhere, focusing national attention on the severe problem of violence and harassment directed at lesbian and gay teenagers in schools.

PROTECTING STUDENTS FROM DISCRIMINATION

"Young people are identifying their same-sex attractions at earlier and earlier ages ? about 13 on average -- so gay-related concerns have become increasingly important in middle and high schools. It's no surprise that we now see more than 700 gay-straight alliance clubs around the country, organized by students against anti-gay harassment," said David S. Buckel, senior staff attorney at Lambda's New York headquarters.

For students like Jessica Cohen and Maggie Hinckley in Salt Lake City, and Tony Colín in Orange, California, Buckel, with Davidson and other Lambda lawyers, work to protect the rights of young people trying to build support and curb anti-gay harassment at their schools. "Astoundingly, some schools aren't embracing these brave efforts, but actually have gone to great lengths to try to stop them," Buckel says.

WINNING ANTI-DISCRIMINATION POLICIES AT COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES

Lambda's guide for winning bans against anti-gay discrimination on college campuses, recently was created by Marvin C. Peguese. The New York-based Lambda staff attorney notes, "When schools fail to demand zero-tolerance for discrimination, they fail both gay and non-gay people on campus."

The guide already has been instrumental at Texas A&M University, where students secured agreement to add sexual orientation to the school's anti-discrimination policy. Their efforts continue since an apparently publicity-shy university president backpedaled a day after the policy improvement was unveiled.

BUILDING SUPPORT FOR A DISCRIMINATION-FREE BOY SCOUTS OF AMERICA

"Public response has been loud and strong to the Supreme Court ruling that the Boy Scouts of America can discriminate against gay youth and leaders; parents, corporate donors, and many scouts themselves are sending the message that BSA may have won the right to discriminate, but that doesn't make discrimination right," says Senior Staff Attorney Evan Wolfson, who argued Boy Scouts of America v. James Dale before the High Court.

As long as the Boy Scouts of America discriminates, it should not receive public privileges, such as special access to public schools to recruit or government sponsorhip of troops. Lambda's Back-to-School Kit explains.

Some of BSA's biggest backers are withdrawing support now that it is clear that the organization doesn't comply with the companies' own diversity guidelines. Lambda's Back to School Kit offers examples.

SECURING FAIR TREATMENT FOR OPENLY GAY TEACHERS

"When students think it is okay to disrespect and discriminate against gay teachers, they learn a damaging lesson that it is okay to discriminate against anyone," says WRO Staff Attorney Myron Dean Quon in Los Angeles. Lambda's attorney in the Murray and Kavanaugh cases. Quon adds, "Teachers should not have to hide that they are lesbian or gay, and schools cannot ignore anti-gay harassment against them or against students."

Despite being an award-winning high school teacher, Dawn Murray was denied a promotion and became the target of vicious anti-gay comments and false rumors after her co-workers learned that she is a lesbian. She is suing her Southern California school district for anti-gay job discrimination.

Because she is lesbian, Alta Kavanaugh was accused of creating a "hostile learning environment," and her Hemet, California, school district removed a student from her English class. The state Department of Industrial Relations affirmed an earlier ruling to stop removing students from Kavanaugh's classroom and ordered all staff to take anti-discrimination training.

Not far from Detroit, Lambda is supporting two teachers also facing discrimination. Says Lambda Staff Attorney Heather C. Sawyer of Lambda's Midwest Regional Office in Chicago,"Schools that violate the free speech and academic freedom of gay teachers dishonor those teachers and fail all students by teaching the wrong lesson about equality and respect."

In Michigan's Plymouth-Canton school district, Michael Chiumento and Tom Salbenblatt are challenging the district's anti-gay behavior. The two gay teachers were publicly vilified and censored for gay history month school displays, even though non-gay teachers were allowed to post similar displays.

Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization for lesbians, gay men and people with HIV/AIDS. Headquartered in New York, Lambda has offices in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.


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