Case Highlights National Epidemic in Rural Schools
VISALIA, CA -- Breaking new ground in the ongoing struggle against anti-gay harassment and violence in rural schools nationwide, the American Civil Liberties Union today filed an expanded federal lawsuit against a school district in California's Central Valley, seeking to eliminate a hostile, homophobic climate and enact systematic school reform.
The lawsuit, filed this morning in U.S. District Court on behalf of a former high school student and the Gay Straight Alliance Network, charges that because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, students are harassed by school administrators, teachers, and classmates. The school's response, the lawsuit says, is to get gay kids off campus by placing them in inappropriate special education programs. Today's lawsuit claims the hostile environment this creates is unlawful under the U.S. Constitution and California state law, and seeks systematic reforms in Visalia Unified School District.
California's statewide GSA Network - which includes a GSA club in Visalia - is a plaintiff in today's lawsuit with former high school student George Loomis. Among the Visalia GSA's members who are actively involved in the lawsuit is Geoffrey Smith, whose five-year-old child will begin attending elementary school in the Visalia Unified School District this fall. Smith said that he and his wife joined the GSA -- and the lawsuit -- because, regardless of what their daughter's sexual orientation will be, they do not want her to be educated in a hostile, discriminatory environment.
"As a concerned parent, I can't imagine allowing my daughter to go to school in that type of environment," Smith said. "I ask myself, what kinds of things will she have witnessed by the time she gets to high school? What message will she be getting? Could she be harassed herself? It's totally unacceptable to me. Kids are there to learn, not fend for their safety."
Because kids and their families are often left to fend for their safety, usually alone, the ACLU said today's lawsuit highlights a national problem.
"This case isn't just about Visalia, California. It's about a nationwide epidemic in rural schools, where young people face unspeakable harassment and violence because of who they are," said Matt Coles, Director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project. "Visalia is named in this case, but it could be almost any school in rural America."
Rural youth are rarely included in surveys and research about anti-gay school environments, and the few studies of rural communities that do exist suggest that rural school districts may be much more hostile than those in urban areas, according to the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.
"We know from the calls for help we receive every day that kids and their families in rural communities are not being helped" Coles explained. "They are more likely to feel isolated and alone, less likely to have a supportive organization like a Gay Straight Alliance club nearby, and at greater risk of being harassed, threatened or assaulted."
For example, 18.6 percent of students identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual in urban Seattle report having been threatened or injured by a weapon at school in a one-year period, compared to 29 percent of students who have had same-sex experiences in heavily-rural Vermont. Similarly, the rapid growth of GSA clubs has been predominately in states with heavily urban or suburban populations, according to population analyses based on U.S. Census figures.
Today's lawsuit is a part of a multi-faceted ACLU strategy to shift attention and resources to LGBT youth in rural schools, according to Coles. In recent weeks, the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project launched "Every Student, Every School," an unprecedented initiative to provide information, assistance and tools for rural communities to make schools safer for LGBT youth. The new initiative's online information center is at http://www.aclu.org/issues/gay/safe_schools.html.
"We've reached out to thousands of rural groups around the country - many of whom have never been approached about gay issues - to help engage them in efforts to make schools safer, and to get them the information and resources they need to get started," Coles said. "This is a complex problem, but our message is quite simple: Unsafe schools affect everyone, and all of us have a role in helping change the climate in rural communities."
Details on today's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Fresno:
On behalf of former student George Loomis and California statewide GSA Network (which includes students in Visalia), today's lawsuit charges that students at Visalia Unified School District are persistently harassed on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation; that students are being harassed by their own teachers and school administrators; that the school district promotes and fosters a hostile environment for gays and lesbians and those perceived as gay or lesbian; that teachers and administrators routinely ignore student complaints about harassment; and that counselors, teachers and administrators encourage gay and lesbian students to discontinue their education in favor of "alternative education" or independent study programs that are not appropriate for these students.
In addition to making federal constitutional claims, the lawsuit is one of the first to utilize the California Student Safety & Violence Prevention Act of 2000 (AB 537), a measure sponsored by state Senator Sheila Kuehl and passed in 1999, which forbids discrimination based on actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity in any state-funded school in California.
The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys at the ACLU of Northern California and the law firm of Howard, Rice, Nemerovski, Canady, Falk & Rabkin. The lawsuit and additional information is available on line at www.aclunc.org