In a landmark case that could improve the lives of lesbians and gay men in the nation's schools, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled July 31 in favor of a young gay man who sued his former Wisconsin school for failing to protect him from constant, at times brutal, anti-gay assaults and harassment while he was a student.
The appeal, Nabozny v. Podlesny, was brought by Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and is the first of its kind to challenge anti-gay violence in the nation's schools. The decision reversed a lower court's ruling throwing the case out and remanded it to the federal district court in Madison, Wisconsin for trial.
Patricia M. Logue, managing attorney for Lambda's Midwest Regional Office, who argued the appeal, said, "This ruling in favor of Jamie Nabozny is spectacular news for young lesbians and gay men facing violence and harassment in their schools. It means the federal constitution requires schools to offer gay students the same protections and safety given other students. This may seem obvious, but school officials regularly deny young lesbians and gay men refuge from violence."
A jubilant Nabozny said: "I hope the thousands of other gay teens forced to live through this kind of terror will be encouraged by my victory and will not give up. I feel like someone has finally recognized that it was the violence that was the problem, not me or my sexual orientation, and I am deeply grateful."
During his four-year ordeal in Ashland, Wisconsin, middle and high schools, Nabozny and his parents repeatedly asked the schools to safeguard him from his attackers, but school officials told them that Nabozny had to learn to expect such abuse because he is gay. During an assault that resulted in injuries requiring surgery, 10 students surrounded Nabozny while another student wearing boots repeatedly kicked him in the stomach. Another time, students urinated on him, and in another instance, students pushed him to the floor and acted out a mock rape. Nabozny attempted suicide several times and ran away to escape the abuse.
"America's heartland is on notice that its schools are responsible for the security of their gay as well as non-gay students," Logue said. She said the ruling directly affects courts in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin and will be influential nationwide.
David Buckel, Lambda staff attorney and co-counsel in the Nabozny case, added, "The issue of anti-gay violence against schoolchildren has exploded, with hearings in states including Kansas, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Texas."
"This decision sends a message to every school district in the country not to sweep problems of anti-gay violence under the rug," said Lambda Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn. "This is a pervasive problem that all schools must face. Young lesbians and gay men have the right to a safe education," Dohrn said.
Nabozny, now 20 years old, sued his high school and his case was thrown out without a trial in the federal district court in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1995. Lambda represented Nabozny in his appeal of that ruling, argued to a panel for the Seventh Circuit appeals court on March 28, 1996. The court ruled that Nabozny could pursue his gender and sexual orientation discrimination claims under the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. Unless the school district petitions the full Seventh Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court for review, today's reversal of the district court decision means that Nabozny now can take his case to trial to establish the school's liability.
A friend-of-the-court brief was filed in support of Nabozny's appeal by the National Association of School Psychologists, the National Association of Social Workers, the national organization of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and the Chicago lesbian and gay social services agency Horizons.
Lambda is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to the civil rights of lesbians, gay men and people with HIV/AIDS. With headquarters in New York City, Lambda has regional offices in Los Angeles as well as Chicago and will open an office in Atlanta in 1997.
For more information and details, refer to the accompanying Fact Sheet.